The blind child was silent for days after Zhota had purified the slain travelers and resumed his journey, ignoring the monk's questions about what had happened to the caravan. He began thinking that the boy was also mute, until one night, the child muttered, "Mother," in his sleep.
The youth had tried to flee on several occasions, forcing Zhota to remove one of his sashes and bind the boy's hands with it, using the clothing as a leash of sorts. The decision to bring him along in the first place had not come easy. The very sight of him filled Zhota with foreboding. For a time the monk had toyed with the idea that he was a demon in the guise of a child, but the thought had passed quickly. Nothing in the Gorgorra is as it seems.
The boy was freakish, that was true, but Zhota had not sensed anything demonic within him. He seemed mindful of his surroundings in a way that only one who had never relied on his eyes could be. Even so, the child constantly tripped over mossy rocks or exposed roots, slowing Zhota's pace to a snail's crawl.
Of greater concern was that the youth had the stamina of a dying dog. He couldn't travel more than half a mile without stopping to catch his breath. Whenever the calls of birds or other beasts echoed in the nearby forests, he would wander off toward the sound, enraptured with childish curiosity. Zhota had a mind to leave the boy behind, but the monk hoped to learn more about what had assailed the caravan.
The child's stubborn silence, however, persisted. If the little one wanted to play games, Zhota decided, the monk would play as well.
"Faster, demon child." Zhota tugged on the boy's leash.
"Mind your step here, demon child," he said as he led the youth over a bed of rocks.
He goaded the boy for the rest of the day, watching as the child's skin flushed red with rage. Finally, the youth bristled, yanking against Zhota's grip. "I'm not a demon!"
"So you do speak."
The child cringed in defeat and lowered his head.
"Give me your name, boy. I am here to help you."
"Liar. You tricked me. You played the wrong song."
"Tricked you? Perhaps I should have left you back there. How long do you think one blind boy would last in the Gorgorra—" Zhota was saying when he remembered the flute tucked into his sash.
He withdrew the instrument and held it out to the child. "I take it this is yours, then."
The youth groped the air until he found the flute, then he hugged it to his chest. Blood tears poured down from his eyes, trailing thin red veins that made it look as if someone had slashed his face with a fine blade.
"Mother..." the child whispered. "She promised she would call me back with our song. When I heard the music, it was wrong... all wrong... I thought she had forgotten." He turned his sightless eyes to Zhota as if the boy could truly see him, wrinkling his face in anger. "What did you do with her?"
"If your mother was at the camp, she is with the gods now," Zhota said, recalling the headless woman in the fire pit. He saw no point in tempering the truth with vagaries or false hope. "She and the others met their fate long before I ran across them."
"The gods told me as much," the boy said, "but I didn't want to believe them."
"Whatever ill force that slew them is gone. It will trouble you no more."
"No," the youth shot back. "The demon that attacked us is still out there. The others at the camp, they hid me in the tree and then set the beasts loose to fool it, but when it finds I'm not with them, it will come looking for me again. Mother said it will never stop chasing us until we are both dead."
"The demons here kill indiscriminately. They do not chase travelers for days on end. Now, tell me your name and where you came from. Do you have relatives in the Gorgorra?"
"You don't believe me," the child said. He ignored the rest of Zhota's questions.
That night, after Zhota made camp, the boy curled up to sleep by the warmth of the fire, the flute tucked between his arms. The youngster's obstinacy was infuriating, but the monk had to wonder why the gods had crossed their paths if not for him to safeguard the child. He was helpless... alone... afraid...
"The commoners you meet will try to lead you away from the path of duty with their tears and their sorrows. You must be wiser than they are. You must not stray," Akyev had warned him.
There was wisdom in Akyev's words, Zhota had to admit. He had been dispatched to restore balance in the Gorgorra, not to shepherd orphans. But he couldn't bring himself to abandon the boy.
Zhota traced the lessons engraved on his bo with his fingers. His hand stopped at a deep gouge near the center of the staff. The notch was an ugly thing that marred the otherwise beautiful inscriptions he had carved, but Akyev had forbidden Zhota to repair it, for elsewise he would forget its meaning.
"Your weapon is only as strong as your spirit," Akyev had said to him the day his staff was cut. The monks strove to hone their bodies and minds into instruments of divine justice. Swords, staves, and other tools of battle were, in truth, unnecessary. Even so, the order valued training with all manner of armaments to strengthen its martial prowess. It was not uncommon for a monk to wield one type of weapon and use it as an extension of his perfectly balanced spirit to mentally focus his attacks. Akyev was an adherent of such a method, and he had spent a great deal of time imparting his philosophies about weaponry to Zhota over the years.
"The ignorant will see your bo as mere wood, something easily broken," Akyev had continued. "Yet it will only splinter when you hesitate, and so long as you walk the path of duty, there is no reason for that to happen."
Zhota and his master had gathered at one of the monastery's walled training grounds to spar with real weapons. The days of practicing with blunt-edged swords and hollowed-out staves were over.
The younger monk had arrived full of confidence, but it had all melted away when Akyev drew his scimitar. The sword was unadorned, but Zhota had known that it was anything but ordinary. The Unyielding had forged it with his own hands, folding the steel on itself again and again for months. Every morning, he had prayed to his patron deity—Zaim, the god of the mountains—to infuse the blade with indomitable strength. It could part solid stone and plate armor as if they were water.
"The weapon is an ornament," Akyev had said upon seeing the fear in Zhota's face. "The Patriarchs deem that my blade is no greater than your staff. Do you think to question their divine wisdom?"
"No," Zhota had answered, trying to sound as if he truly believed the word.
After that, the sparring had begun. When Akyev's first strike had come crashing down, doubt and uncertainty had gripped Zhota. It wasn't the sword he saw before him but the man wielding it—the man who was always his better, who never flinched from any task given to him, no matter how arduous.
The scimitar had cleaved Zhota's bo, driving him to his knees. His master had yanked the blade free and roared in fury. "Fool! I could have killed you. You allowed your fears to guide you."
Akyev had eyed the green, blue, and white sashes around Zhota's body in disgust. "You have too much of the rivers in you... Sometimes still and calm, sometimes turbulent."
The tones of Zhota's clothing were emblematic of Ymil, the god of the rivers. The deity was associated with emotion, intuition, and the life-giving properties of water. Yet there were some monks, Akyev most of all, who argued that Ymil was capricious and indecisive. As a result of Zhota's choosing this god as his patron, the Patriarchs had paired him with Akyev. The hope had been that the elder monk's rigid demeanor would temper the younger's hesitant nature, and vice versa.
"Our tasks are simple; our orders are clear. Why do you complicate them with uncertainty?" Akyev had said as he inspected the cut in Zhota's staff. "This is the cost of disobedience. This is what happens when you stray from duty. And when the ill wind blows, the tree that bends will break."
The moon was high by the time Zhota stopped reliving the memory of that day in his mind, his thumb raw from tracing the jagged cleft in his bo. The boy was still sleeping. The sight of him made Zhota livid. He wished he had never stumbled across the child in the first place.
He does not matter, Zhota told himself. The orphan's past and all of the mysteries of the slaughtered camp were distractions. As the night wore on, the monk made his choice. There were villages south from his current location. If they had not been scoured, he would find someone there to look after the child.
If they had been, and if there was no safe haven to be found in three days' time, he would give the boy the only option left: peace.