Damek refused to say anything more on the subject of bastardry, and I was left feeling cheated. I was tantalizingly close, I believed, to finally getting some answers from the old blind bastard, but he remained as tight-fisted with his information as ever.
“Come along, Rio,” he said, his voice hard with determination. His blind gaze drifted further up the road, as though he could sense how close we were to our first stop along the road to Gandras. “Come,” he said again. “We must press on. It is still early in the day, but I want us to find some place suitable to camp for the evening. We’ll enter Balunkrants in the morning.”
“But there is still more than a watch left before dusk,” I protested. “Why can’t we go to Balunkrants now, find a room at the tavern to sleep and some hot food to go with that bread I stole this morning but which you’ve yet to give me a damned nibble of?”
Damek fixed his empty stare on me. “You think I’m made of money? You think I crap warrins? That I’m so damned well-to-do that we can stroll into this little town like we own the place?”
“I didn’t say any of that,” I protested.
“No, but you implied it. If I had that kind of money, do you think I’d be dragging your worthless arse around the countryside? Not bloody likely, I assure you. No, until we start making money off the people of Samye Canton, we’ll sleep in the arms of the earth.”
“You mean on the forest floor?” I asked.
Damek grunted and muttered something under his breath. I caught none of it, but the old man did not offer up any more audible answer. Instead, he turned his attention back to the road to Balunkrants and said, “Let’s go. No more talk. There will be time for questions later.”
“Time for questions, yes,” I muttered. “But will there be any gods damned answers to them?”
“What was that?” Damek asked.
“You heard me,” I said.
The old bastard grinned. “Well, well. It seems the mouthy little prick has learnt one lesson after all.”
He set off at his leisurely pace, chuckling to himself, and I was forced to trot after him. I confess that I was quite confused by the easy way he had brushed off that last transgression of mine. I quickly came to realize that Damek was far more unpredictable than I had anticipated. The bastard could be sweet as honey one moment then fiery as a half-warrin whore in want of her pay the next.
I tried to occupy myself as we walked by counting old Damek’s footsteps. He’d been very specific about the number of steps to a mile, and I wanted to test him. I wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t just making those numbers up to impress me.
He must have sensed what I was doing, for every hundred steps or so he’d shuffle slightly, throwing in a quick half step and a drag of the foot. At first, I counted those as three normal steps, but the more he did it, the more I became so mesmerized with anticipating the shuffle that I forgot to keep count.
Damek began to chuckle to himself, pausing in his stride and bending over to speak a word in my ear. “A blind man’s boy also needs to be able to keep his concentration up.”
“You knew I was counting?”
“Of course. You were muttering under your breath, and I noticed that you stopped doing so about three hundred steps back. Honestly, boy, at this rate, I might as well brain you with my stick and leave you on the side of the road to whatever wild animals come by—be they man or beast.”
Such was the flatness of his tone that I could not suppress a shudder. “No, please,” I begged. “I don’t want to be a lonely bastard.”
“Hmm,” he said, not convinced. “Well, you’ve won us bread for a day at least, so you can stay for now.”
I thanked him sincerely and he cackled again. “Our campsite is not too far up ahead. Tell me how many of my paces lie between here and there, and I may even reward you with a crust from that bread.”
He set off again without further comment, and I quickly fell into step beside him and resumed counting, sensing some deeper lesson was about to be imparted to me. Damek did everything in his power to throw off my count of his steps, but I held my concentration and when we finally came to a stop, he asked, “Well? How many then?”
“One thousand and seventy-five,” I replied, forcing my voice to sound more confident than I actually felt.
“How do you figure that?”
“I counted those weird shuffle-drags of yours as three steps,” I said, “because you always came out of them on the same foot you entered.”
He stared blindly at my face for several long moments, just long enough for me to begin feeling completely stupid. I was about to apologize for screwing up so badly when he said, “Damned clever of you to notice that. Maybe there is a brain inside that empty head of yours after all. Actual count of steps was one thousand and seventy-eight, but only if I weren’t buggering around myself trying to throw you off.” He pointed with his stick away to our left, into the forest north of Balunkrants. “There’s a clearing in there close to the river. About another thousand steps. Here, take my hand and lead me safely. Let this be your first act as my servant. You’ll be doing a lot of handholding in the future.”
I gripped his hand, feeling its ancient leathery skin against the tenderness of my youthful palm. “How old are you?” I asked on reflex.
“What sort of damned impolite question is that? I’m sixty, or thereabouts, you little piss-ant. You’ll wish you’d look so damned good when you reach my age.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“You should always mean what you say, Rio. World’s full enough of insincere swindlers for it to need another one. Trust me on this, the more honest and sincere you are, the more you’ll get out of life as people will trust you and like you.”
“Is that true?” I asked hopefully.
“No, turd-for-brains! Gods, but you’re bloody gullible. We’re going to have to break that streak in you, and soon!”
I grumbled, careful to keep my mutterings indistinct, and began to lead him into the forest in the direction he’d indicated. Along the way, I paused to direct him around roots or over depressions in the earth. He never once touched his walking stick to the ground but seemed to cast total trust and reliance on me to guide him correctly.
The sound of the Balundan’s waters grew louder and louder, and the clearing to which I’d been directed opened out to look over the river. There was an ash pit in the center of the clearing, an old hole that had been dug into the ground and used for countless fires over the years. The pit was mostly empty, the wind having swept it free of ash in the weeks or months since its last use.
Damek sat himself down close to the pit, eliciting a loud groan that was an invitation for me to help him.
“Tell me one thing,” he said when seated. “Why the hell didn’t you lead me into a hole or tree branch or something?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You said to be sure I guided you well. Why would I do that? You’d only beat me with your stick if I did make you fall.”
“Fear of punishment is no reason to not do something,” he answered. “By the seven, if all men went around with those thoughts the world would come to a complete standstill.”
“So you want me to lead you into holes and trees?” I asked skeptically.
He turned his head up to stare forlornly at the heavens. “Ruzhena, I sure as hell hope the gods make you pay for this,” he muttered. With a shake of his head, he looked in my direction again. “You are clearly too dense to note the subtleties of what I’m speaking,” he said, “but do try to keep up. I am trying to teach you how to be my servant. Understand one thing and understand it well, Rio, or you will remain utterly and completely useless to me: people think blind folk are easy to scam. And I want people to think that as it makes them so much easier to scam in return.”
“Why would you want to scam people? That doesn’t seem right?”
“Listen, Rio, the Sausawans are wrong when they say there are only two types of people in this world. In reality, there are three: bastards, bigger bastards, and the poor bastards the other two rip off. It’s either scam or be scammed in this world, and I need you to play your part. The more vulnerable I appear, the more power I ultimately have. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“This has something to do with being the bigger bastard, doesn’t it?” I asked.
“Damn right it does!” Damek exclaimed. “Now, sit your arse down and listen.”
“I thought I was going to get to ask questions,” I said.
“You just did and I’m about to answer.”
I furrowed my brow for a moment before realizing I’d done little but ask him questions since we’d arrived in the clearing. It was still some time until dusk began to settle upon the earth, and Damek seemed intent to sit beside the empty fire pit and chat away until then.
“I wasn’t always blind,” he said after a lengthy pause. “And I didn’t become blind because of old age either. It was not the result of a wound or an accident. Listen to me, Rio: I chose to become blind.”
“Why would you choose to become blind?” I asked, slipping back into the questioning mode that seemed my natural disposition towards Damek—as it had been towards Batur before.
“That is an answer I’m not sure you are prepared for,” the blind man replied, “but an answer you probably should hear at any rate. You are likely curious as to how I know your mother. She and I go back a long, long way. We are connected more intimately than ever husband and wife were—and, no, I am not saying she is my daughter. She and I passed through the rites together.”
“The rites?” I asked.
“The rites, boy. The druidic rites.”
“You’re a druid?”
“Are you deaf or is this forest clearing causing an echo in my ears? How the hell do you think I walk through the forest so ably? I can’t possibly just know where all the roots and low-hanging branches are, can I?”
“No, I suppose not,” I said.
“No, I suppose not either. My being a druid has little to do with a lot in my life but it had a hell of a lot to do with me choosing blindness. Do you know what the commune is?”
I shook my head, mesmerized and not a little afraid.
“You are shaking your head, aren’t you?” Damek asked.
He sighed. “Speak to me, boy. I cannot hear movements, not unless they touch upon the rest of the world.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what the commune is.”
“As expected. The commune is the goal of all druidic arts. We seek oneness with nature, with the world around us. That is why the Concord clerics hate us so much. They want transcendence over nature whereas we seek union. The world has a hum, a voice, a subtle sounding that calls to every man. The druid communes with that hum and so makes himself one with the world.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “What if I tell an Inquisitor?”
“You won’t, and let me tell you why: An Inquisitor is trying to kill your mother. One sentenced your father to the march wars, where he died. You hate the Inquisition with more fervor and passion than your childish mind can currently understand. Remember what I said about trust earlier?”
“Well, there is one thing you can always trust and that is a man’s hate. Love fails. Friendship fades with time. And honesty always proves dishonest. But hatred endures. It feeds the heart, sustains it when all else fails. That is why you will never betray me to the Inquisition. As for why I am telling you this, well, you have spent a day and a half wondering who the hell I am and how I can move about so freely. I just answered your question.”
“So, why did you choose to become blind?” I asked.
“You already know the answer to that question now,” Damek replied. “I have given you all the information you need, so let it be another test of that puny brain of yours to come up with the answer. And while you think about it, go find us some wood for a fire. And take this.” He opened the canvas bag he’d been carrying possessively all day and handed me an empty water skin. “Get us some water too.”
I scurried off to do as ordered and returned some time later with the wood and water.
After I had the wood stacked, Damek produced a small fire using nothing—so far as I could see—but a few whispered words. The wood was dry and crackled nicely in the flames. It was summer, as I’ve said, but the day had been chill and as dusk descended, it grew cooler still, so the fire was a welcome addition to our camp.
“Did you figure it out?” the blind man asked. I looked at him blankly, having long since forgotten the puzzle he’d left me with. He sighed impatiently when I was not forthcoming with an answer. “Did you figure out why I chose blindness?” he said testily.
“I…ah…” I fell silent. Searching my memory very quickly, I came up with an answer that seemed to make sense. “Because our eyes lie to us?”
Damek sat silently for a few drawn out moments before he tossed me a quarter of the bread I’d got that morning. “Good guess,” he said.
“Where’s the rest?” I asked.
“Of the bread? It’s my share.”
“But I stole it!”
“You didn’t steal piss. I know the baker’s wife gave it to you out of pity. There’s no way in hell you were capable of stealing that bread.”
I was confused again. “But why send me then?”
“Because I’m not a complete moron—unlike others in our present company—and made the acquaintance of several townsfolk before heading out to your mother’s home. I knew the woman had reason to show you some pity. Her husband, now, had you run into him, you’d have had a problem, but he was likely going to be out gawking at the flames of your mother’s home, bigoted fool that he is. As for the bread, I’m older and handsomer than you, so I deserve a bigger share. I’m also your gods damned master, so you’ll take whatever the hell I give you. If you want to eat, you’ll produce some evidence that you’re at least listening to what I try to teach you. I won’t have dead weight dragging me back.”
“But I’ll starve,” I protested.
“Then you’d better pray that the gods fill your empty skull with something more substantial than cabbage, hadn’t you.”