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We approached harder Muds and the shadow at my feet slipped away like a thief. Jagged treetops cut up the horizon, and the smell of ash was overwhelming. Smoke polluted the sky above the forest, colliding with the song-line, creating a mosaic of gray and green dust. Amid the winding tree trunks, glimmers of man-made light splashed leafy blades like incandescent gore. Trees in the Muds were a rare, suspicious sight.

It would be safe to stop, but the nomads pushed forward.

“Our destination,” said the elder. “You’re surprised? The people here have a method of cultivating Mud. They refuse to share this secret, but I am aware that it involves the burning of curious materials. They rely on travelers for water, though I suspect they have an abundance in reserve. If it were not the case, water would be enough to allow us safe passage. However, their toll is much more severe. You will understand once you lead your own peoples, Ehto. Sacrifices are inevitable.”

We crossed hollowed trees filled with water, harboring floating potted plants. Lamps were suspended above each plant, and the glow guided us through the thinnest woods. I tensed at the unmistakable sound of steps on leaves, but the elder raised a hand to calm me.

The nomads stopped as the path turned to brick, and armed strangers in skirts and belts filed in around us. A young warrior trained her bow on me and I met her eyes, yellow with thick pupils, unconcerned. My hand gripped the hilt of my sword, an action I had no recollection of initiating. A flamboyantly dressed man placed a hand on her wrist, swiveled to the other warriors, and gestured as if he were swatting a fly. Their bows lowered in unison. His robes were gaudy, his nose hooked, with intense eyes too far apart, like a florid bird of prey.

“Kirdle, old friend,” said the elder to the robed man. “The buffalo with the orange ropes—you will find your fee in full.”

“Old friend,” mimicked Kirdle. A tattooed warrior ascended the orange ropes and inspected the stacked barrels. He nodded to Kirdle and guided the buffalo ahead. “And the egg?”

The elder nodded, motioning to a hut erected on the back of a mammoth buffalo. A scrawny nomad exited from within, an egg cradled in his arms. A feminine hand reached out at him through the curtain door, but he brushed it aside. He placed the egg on a bed made from cloth, sticks, and feathers carried by the skirted warriors.

Eggs changing hands was taboo in any society. I made no effort to hide my alarm as they shuffled by me.

The elder pointed a stern glance at me. “Calm yourself, Ehto.”

“You have not introduced your companion, old friend.” smiled Kirdle.

“Allow me,” he said. “You stand before Ehto of the Samehka. Beast-slayer, storyteller, and wanderer of the Muds. He is accompanying me as a guardian until he finds what he is looking for.”

“And what is it you seek, Ehto of the Samehka?” Kirdle asked. I did not respond.

“Please excuse him, Kirdle. He is wiser than he appears, but easily disturbed by cultural divergence.” The elder stopped me before I could object. “Your fee has been paid. Please have your men guide us to our shelter.”

Kirdle’s warriors walked alongside the nomads, while a man-drawn chariot pulled him ahead. I felt the elder’s eyes against my back but I did not turn to him.

“Once a year we pass through this place, Ehto,” he said. “Once a year we leave one of ours behind. You may not be able to see the pain in my wrinkled, old face but I take no pleasure in this. Abandoning the song-line to circle around the forest could be our doom. It could mean sacrificing many lives in exchange for one.”

I was not comfortable expressing my concerns as the woman warrior walked so near me that our arms brushed against each other. Her eyes darted to me with frequency. I assumed she was looking for hidden weapons but realized that she was fixated on my hair.

She jumped as the elder spoke. “I’m told all of his people look like that. Ehto, is it true the Samehki bathe their heads in the blood of the Vora?

The girl was wide-eyed, but I shook my head. Vora blood wasn’t maroon. It was a silly rumor spread by unscrupulous tourists.

The elder laughed. “Forgive a foolish old man who has heard too many stories.”

The brick path opened up into a wide road, encircling a village of mud-brick buildings and gardens. The circular road branched off into separate paths crossing through fields of crops, and districts of mismatched homes. Smoke rose from structures shaped as gargantuan furnaces, laborers worked the fields, and children kicked dust at beggars.

Stray dogs wandered the village, staring down from the tops of buildings, and peering through windows like suspicious old maids. Some would nip at the buffalo and have to be shooed away by nomads. They roamed wild and the villagers made no attempt to control them, some even making an effort to stay out of their way.

Warriors ushered us to the center of the circle, while the egg-bearers took a path upward towards an ivy-covered mausoleum. The warrior woman ignored my questions about the building and the elder sat stone-faced while villagers eyed me with mistrust.

We arrived at a long building with stables for the buffalo. Servants lowered the elder into a palanquin and carried him into the inn as he motioned for me to follow. They sat him on a platform surrounded by incense pots and dangling charms. No sooner than he was settled did more servants arrive with fruits and wine, and a chair for me. The elder waved all but a few of them away.

I sat facing the entrance with my back to the elder.

“You think ill of me, Ehto.” he said, chewing and drinking. It wasn’t a question, and I did.