Phelix could never really bounce his dad off the seat; he was way bigger. Besides, Phelix was too excited to just sit there like he was communing with the gods. Dad said they would reach Argos, the konpotar capital, by evening today, and the sun was starting to go down. He sat up a little straighter to see if he could see the city on the horizon. Phelix had never been to Argos before. In fact, until he came with his dad on this trip, he’d never been out of the Wynos Mountains.
But now that he was ten, Dad said he could come with him on his annual trading trip. Their wagon was loaded down with furs that his dad and other men of his tribe spent all winter trapping. There was even a decent sized sack that were Phelix’s own catches.
“How soon can we sell the furs?” he asked.
His dad threw back his head and laughed. Phelix couldn’t help smiling. His dad’s laughter contained all the happiness in the world. “You want that new knife, eh?”
Heat rose in Phelix’s face, and he looked away. His family didn’t have much money.
His dad patted him on the thigh. “No need to be embarrassed, son. You worked hard on your traps this winter. Far harder than most boys your age. You’ve earned yourself a fine knife. You can pass that one”—his father nodded at the small knife Phelix wore at his belt—“on to Alekos.”
Alekos was Phelix’s younger brother, and he’d probably lose the knife within a week. He lost everything. Phelix had once lent him his coolest rock, a white crystal with gold twisted throughout, to show to his friends. His father had said it wasn’t real gold, but it looked like it. Phelix had found it on the bank of the river, and his dad said it had probably washed down from high in the mountains.
His stupid brother had lost the rock before he even reached his friends. Alekos hadn’t come home until after dark that night. He’d been searching the path, looking for the rock. He spent the next three days looking too, but Phelix had never seen his rock again, and he bet he’d never find another like it.
But what did a stupid rock matter next to a fine knife? He smiled up at his dad. “We’ll get it at Baruch’s, right?”
“I wouldn’t buy knives anywhere else.”
His dad stared straight ahead, ignoring them. “Money we can’t spare, if we’re going to make it through the winter.” His dad cursed as he tried to ride free of the children pressing against the wagon. “The three-times benighted king gets their fathers killed in his wars, and their mothers can’t feed them.”
When the children finally decided Phelix’s dad wasn’t going to give them anything, they moved to the next wagon. His dad fixed Phelix with his serious eyes rather than the laughing ones he usually wore. “Remember, son, we of the Wynos aren’t afraid to fight when the cause is right, but we don’t shed blood on a tyrant’s whim.”
Phelix nodded. The king’s troops had come into the mountains recruiting last year. His mother had had him hide in the woods because they didn’t think nine was too young for war. But the men of his tribe had arranged so many “accidents” for the troops that they went scurrying home. His dad claimed it would be years before they came again.
“Dad, do the konpotars even have an arima?”
“I’ve often wondered that myself, son. If they have an arima at all, it isn’t like ours. Our arima not only dwells within our own body, but reaches out to touch the arima of every other member of our tribe. The konpotar aren’t connected to each other like that. Sometimes, they don’t even seem connected to themselves.”
Phelix shivered. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live without an arima, cut off and alone.
As the sun was setting, his dad pulled their wagon into the yard of a large inn. He brought Phelix inside and approached a huge bald man with only one arm and an empty sleeve where the other should have been. “Mahail, my friend, how have the gods been treating you?” his father spoke in Saloynan, the language of the konpotars.
They clapped each other on the back like old friends. “Can’t complain, Petros,” Mahail said. Petros was the name his father used outside of the mountains. “Can’t complain. This handsome young man your son?”
His dad put his hand on Phelix’s shoulder. “Yes, this is Phelix, my oldest. He’s become quite the good trapper.”
His dad and Mahail, who Phelix figured owned the inn, talked about boring stuff for awhile, and his dad arranged stabling for their horses and wagon and lodging for them.
“Say, you know what?” Mahail said, looking at Phelix. “I heard there was a puppet show tonight in Tetragona Square, just around the corner and through the alley. Perhaps the lad would like to see it.”
“Puppet show?” Phelix looked up at his dad. He wasn’t sure what puppets were, but he wanted to see everything in Argos.
His dad grinned. “I think we should go check it out. Shouldn’t we, son?”
Phelix nodded, hoping it didn’t cost much.
When his dad was sure the furs were safely stowed, they started off. “Any excuse to escape Mahail’s cooking. He has excellent security for the merchandise, but his cooking is piss poor. I guess with only one arm he can’t put any flavor in his stews.” He laughed loudly, and Phelix joined in. Being around his dad always made him happy. He didn’t know anyone happier than his dad. “The inn right next to the square makes much better food.”
They walked down a narrow, dim alley. As they turned the corner, they came into a brightly lit square where children were gathered around some kind of box. He guessed it was the puppet show. He crept closer and stared in awe. He’d never seen anything like it. The box had a curtain, and in front of the curtain, a dragon and a knight were fighting while the dragon taunted the knight.
“You fight like you drank too much wine and filled your pants with rocks,” the dragon said, and Phelix burst out laughing.
His father put his hand on his shoulder. “Go ahead and sit up with the other children. I’ll keep an eye on you from back here.”
A crash of thunder jolted him awake.
His father ruffled his hair. “You looked so peaceful sleeping I didn’t wake you, but we best hurry back to Mahail’s before the rain really starts coming down.”
Phelix was too tired to do anything more than stagger to his feet and take his father’s hand. Part of him wished he were still little enough for his father to carry him. As they rushed through the alleyway, the cold rain washed some of the sleepiness out of him.
But then his father abruptly let go of his hand and gave a strange grunt.
A flash of lightening lit up the night sky, and Phelix screamed. A man with a face Phelix could never forget was pulling a bloody knife from his dad’s back. He had a long scar starting where his right eye should have been and trailing all the way down his cheek, and the tip of his nose had been chopped off. As his dad staggered, the man cut loose his purse with the bloody knife, winked at Phelix with his one good eye, and then he was gone.
His dad collapsed. Phelix cried out and knelt beside him. He couldn’t see where he was wounded. “What should I do? Tell me what to do!”
His dad’s hand tightened on his arm, and he made some grunting sounds, but that was all.
“Don’t die! Please don’t die.”
His father’s hand went slack.
The constables had been there and asked him what happened. They looked at each other when Phelix described Half-face. “Him again,” one of them grunted.
“The bloody bastard’s luck will run out soon, and we’ll have him,” the other responded.
They were gone now, and a woman the innkeeper called Mara started fussing over him again. He decided she was Mahail’s wife. “Drink the wine, dear. It will warm up your insides. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice bowl of stew?” she asked for what seemed like the tenth time.
Phelix shook his head. Perhaps he’d never eat again. He’d just knelt in the alley and let his dad die. He should have done something to save him. Tears formed in his eyes, but he shook them away.
Mahail sat at the table with him. “I’ll have a bowl myself,” he told his wife. When she left, he sighed loudly. “Horrible business. Just horrible. Your father was a good man. Paid his bills with a smile on his face, and he always had a jest on his lips. Horrible business.” He paused, but Phelix just stared into the flames.
Mara brought two bowls of stew. As she sat, she put one of the bowls in front of Phelix “Why don’t you try a bite, dear? It might make you feel better.”
“By Hermes, Mara, he’s only ten, and his father’s just been murdered. I hardly think this is a time for stew.”
“What else can I do for the poor lad?” she sniffled. “Only a child. Alone in the big city with his father dead.”
Mahail patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, son. We’ll do right by you. We’ll help you sell the furs and find someone who will take you and your father’s body home.”
“No,” Phelix said.
“Sure, we will, lad,” Mara patted his other arm. “We both liked your father, and we’d want someone to do the same for our—” Whatever else she was going to say was cut off by her sob.
Phelix glared at them. “I can’t go home until I’ve paid my father’s blood debt.”
The innkeeper rolled his eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, boy.”
“Since my father is dead and I’m his oldest son, I’m a man now. I can’t return to my tribe until I’ve avenged my father’s blood. A man who allows his father’s blood to go unavenged has no arima.”
“Poor, poor lad!” Mara squeezed his arm. “I know the Wynos mountains build harsh people, but surely, no one could expect such a ridiculous thing of a child. Besides, your mother will need your comfort at a time like this.”
Phelix stood, letting the blanket fall from his shoulders. He drew his knife. “The death of my father’s murderer will bring her all the comfort she needs.”
Who would have thought a man with half a face would be so hard to find? When he asked about the man, lots of people had heard about him or seen him, but no one knew where to find him. At least that’s what they said. He was pretty sure some had been lying, but he didn’t know how to make them tell the truth. He didn’t have enough money for bribes.
Mahail had kept his word and helped him sell the furs and send his father’s body and money home to his tribe. Phelix hadn’t sent a message. His mother would understand what he had to do. He’d only kept back half of the coin that came from the sale of his own furs. He’d bought himself a good knife, and he’d been able to make the rest last by helping out with chores around the inn in exchange for being able to sleep in the stable loft.
Still, he didn’t know what he’d eat if it took him much longer to find Half Face.
There was a commotion in the square up ahead, and even though he’d been disappointed many times in the past, Phelix hurried toward it hoping to find Half Face in the crowd. He came upon a scaffolding and wiggled his way to the front. The constables were dragging a prisoner with a bag over his head out of a cart. They led him up the stairs, where both a priest and the executioner were waiting for him. They forced him to his knees and pulled off the bag.
It was Half Face. The man who murdered his dad. And he was about to hang. Phelix couldn’t let that happen. To make things right his father’s murderer had to die by his own hand.
“You have been found guilty of murder,” the priest said. “Do you have any last words you’d like to speak before we send you to Hades?”
“No!” Phelix screamed and tried to push his way to the stairs. The crowd closed tightly, and he had to struggle to get through. By the time he made it to the steps, Half Face had the bag back over his head and a rope around his neck.
His heart nearly bursting in his chest, Phelix tried to run past the constable at the base of the steps, but the man caught his arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Phelix gestured desperately at the murderer. “Let me go! He killed my father! I have to kill him!”
The constable laughed. “He’s about to hang. You can’t make him any deader than that.”
Phelix didn’t have time to argue. The executioner had his hand on the lever that would open the trap door beneath Half Face. He drew his knife and stabbed it into the hand holding his arm. But instead of releasing him, the constable swore a foul oath and back-handed him so hard across the face his head swam. He tried to stab again, but the constable grabbed his wrist and twisted until the knife fell from his hand.
He kicked and butted his head against the man, but the man’s grip tightened. Phelix screamed, “You don’t understand! I have to kill him myself! I have to pay my father’s blood debt!”
The constable called another one over. “Got one of those little mountain hellcat here. The bastard stabbed me.”
As the second constable took him from the first, the trap door opened and the ground fell out from beneath Half Face. Phelix stopped fighting. He’d failed. He’d lost his arima.
But Half Face’s legs twitched wildly. The fall hadn’t snapped his neck clean. If he could only get free and get his knife, there was still time. He bit down hard on one of the constable’s hands, but the constable pounded his head against the scaffolding without letting go. The blow hurt, and blood ran into his left eye. He put both his feet against the scaffolding and pushed back hard. As he’d hoped, he sent both of them tumbled into the street, and for a brief moment he was free. He scrambled for his knife, but a hand caught his ankle.
The first constable grabbed him by the wrist, yanked him to his feet, and punched him in the gut. “Stop it, you fool boy! He’s dead!”
“No,” he screamed. “No!” But he looked up and saw Half Face’s legs hanging limp. He stopped struggling, and the constable released him. Phelix dropped to his knees.
A hand yanked him to his feet, and the second constable punched him in the face. “Cursed kid! You bit me, you animal.”
The other held up his bleeding hand. “He stabbed me. You’re in a lot of trouble, boy. They might just hang you next.”
Phelix hung limply in the man’s grasp. It didn’t matter what happened to him now.
A military officer approached the constables. “Shame to waste a fighter like this one on the gallows when we can use him on the front line to kill Massossinans. I’ll take him off your hands.”
The constables exchanged dark looks, but the one holding him shoved him toward the officer. The officer clamped down on Phelix’s arm, but there was no point in resisting. “So how about it, boy? You want to kill some barbarians for your king?”
Phelix glared up at him. “Phelix doesn’t care. Phelix failed to pay his father’s blood debt. Phelix has no arima any more.”