Chapter 2

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Batu cupped his bowl in both hands and swirled the steaming mixture. The butter melted into the warm horse's milk, leaving a yellow sheen across the surface. He raised the bowl to his lips and took a large gulp. A rivulet of liquid escaped from the corner of his mouth and dribbled down his chin. Batu placed the bowl on the table and wiped his face with the back of his left hand. He then did the same with his right hand.

His sister, Kolo, sat opposite, her breakfast bowl balanced in one hand. She looked at him.

"Tell me again how you managed to see off all three of them. Taban, Uchi and Ottu. I don't understand."

"I'm not sure I do either," he said. "Not completely."

He pushed his bowl into the middle of the table.

"When the boys came at me, something changed." He put both of his hands to his head. "It was as if my mind was so focused on the fight, my need to equalize was somehow squeezed out." He sighed. "For a moment I glimpsed what it was like to be normal, to concentrate fully on the task at hand without the need to break things down into balanced steps. But as soon as the boys fled, I was my old self again. Back to being a slave to my routines. Back to being a freak."

"Don't speak like that," Kolo said.

"Why not? It's what everyone else thinks of me."

Batu closed his eyes. He could still sense a trace of the relief he'd experienced during the fight. He breathed in. The things he'd be able to accomplish if he felt like that all of the time. He opened his eyes.

Perhaps what happened yesterday was a sign from the Gods. They were showing him a new path. What if he no longer had to keep things equal? What if all he had to do was stop and act as if he was normal?

He stretched out his right arm.

"Touch my hand," he said.

His sister raised her eyebrows. "Just one of them?"

Batu nodded. "Do it."

Kolo reached over and poked his hand with her index finger. Immediately, his right hand started to grow heavy, and, soon, his left hand began to twitch and thrum. His breathing quickened and, with each heartbeat, the urge to reach across the table and touch his sister's hand with his own grew stronger. He gripped the table's edge with his left hand and breathed deeply. Yesterday he'd managed to resist his desire to equalize, surely he could manage it today, too.

"Batu?" Kolo said. "Are you alright?"

He nodded and studied her face. Her skin started to shimmer, and then it began to wrinkle and crack as if the passage of time was withering her right before his eyes. Her skull poked through her cheeks, gleaming milk-white in the morning light.

Batu shook his head. It wasn't real. Kolo was fine, and nothing horrible would happen to her if he didn't restore balance. It was all in his mind.

He closed his eyes again. A throbbing pain in his head hammered against his temples. His left arm trembled, and sweat sheened his forehead.

But what if Kolo really was harmed in some way? What if his aunt and uncle were hurt as they worked the fields. It would be his fault. If he allowed himself to become unbalanced and the people he loved suffered, he would be responsible.

He snapped his eyes open. What was he thinking? How could he be so selfish? How dare he put their lives at risk? His routines and the insults thrown at him by the villagers were a small price to pay for the safety of his family.

He let go of the table and thrust his left hand forwards.

"Touch it," he said.

Kolo pressed her finger against his own. Almost immediately, the tightness in his chest subsided and his racing heart began to slow.

"I couldn't do it," he said. He put both of his hands to his head. "I'm just not strong enough."

"It's alright, Batu," she said. "You don't need to worry about it. Things will get better when they're meant to. Don't try to force the hands of the Gods."

Batu smiled. "Maybe you're right," he said.

"I know I'm right," she said. "What you should be concerned about is what that sniveling little weasel Taban has told his father about what happened yesterday."

Batu nodded. "I'm bound to be punished. Probably have to work longer days for a month or two." He smiled. "It was worth it, though. You should have seen the look on Taban's face when I struck him."

Batu got to his feet, pushed his chair under the table with both hands and picked up his empty bowl. He turned his back on his sister and, leading with his left foot, stepped towards the water butt. One, two, three, four. He placed the bowl on the floor and reached for the barrel's bung.

A noise came from the door. The hides covering the opening rustled. Keeping his feet still, Batu stood up and turned his head.

A bald-headed man with long ears and a thin face pushed through the hides into the room. Ottakar, the Thane's closest companion. Batu breathed in. He wouldn't be bringing glad tidings, that was for sure.

Kolo rose to her feet.

"Sit down, child." Ottakar waved her away with his slender arm. "This doesn't concern you." He glared at Batu. "I'm here to speak to your brother."

The man took a step towards the middle of the room. The scent of jasmine and oranges wafted into Batu's nostrils.

"Say what you've come to say, then leave," said Batu.

Ottaker dipped his head. "As you wish," he said. "Your Thane has ordered you to attend a meeting of the Elders."

Kolo gasped. Batu took a deep breath. Surely the Elders weren't required to pass judgment over four boys fighting with sticks?

"Why is that necessary?" Batu said. "I was merely defending myself. Taban attacked me."

A grin spread across Ottaker's pale face, revealing his pointy yellow teeth.

"It's necessary because the Thane says it is." He turned on his heel and strode towards the door. "See you at first light. You can plead your case to the Elders." He pushed through the hides and disappeared from view.

Batu rubbed his eyes with his hands. What in the Gods' names had Taban told his father to have brought this on? Certainly nothing resembling the truth.

Kolo walked over to him. She placed her hands on his shoulders. Her face was pale.

"Try not to worry," she said. "The Elders are closer to the Gods than you or I. They will have knowledge of what really happened."

Batu stroked her hair with his hands. The Elders would side with the Thane, as they always did. They might commune with the Gods, but it was Thane Gantula who put a roof over their heads.

"I'm sure you're right," he said. "I'm sure you're right."

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