Chapter 7

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Batu waded out of the water and stood on the bank in front of Jenchin, who was still sitting on the ground with the older woman and the pale-skinned girl standing beside him.

"Shall we bind him?" said the man.

The woman stared at Batu then shook her head.

"He's not going to run," she said. "He looks like a smart lad. He knows he'll be safer with us."

She gestured to the scrubland.

"He's lucky to have survived as long as he has out there on his own. Besides, if we're set upon, he'll be of no use to anyone with his hands tied."

"I won't run," said Batu.

He didn't trust any of them, but the woman was right. He'd be safer traveling as part of a group.

The woman sat down on the bank next to Jenchin, and the pale girl with the blond hair knelt down opposite them.

She turned to Batu.

"Come and join us," she said.

Her voice was light and melodic, but there was an edge to it, too, as if grains of sand had been stirred into the honey.

Batu stepped forwards with his left leg. One. Then he stepped with his right. Two.

He focused on the ground. The others were looking at him, he could sense their eyes studying his halting progress. A warmth spread across his cheeks.

Left leg. Three. Right leg. Four.

He sat down on the ground and glanced up.

The man, who seemed to have made a miraculous recovery from his injuries, opened his mouth to speak, but the younger woman cut him off.

"I'm Amia," she said, extending her hand.

He paused and stared at her slender fingers.

"Batu," he said. He grasped her hand with both of his and shook it.

"Is that the custom in your village?" she said. "To use two hands?"

Batu shook his head and released his grip.

"Well why did you do it?" she said. "It seems strange."

"It's because he has to," said the older woman. "He's got an affliction."

Batu stared at the ground. If he looked at it hard enough, surely it would open up and swallow him whole.

"Haven't you noticed," the woman continued. "After he fought off Jenchin, he was banging his hand and feet into the ground, and then, just now, he was counting his steps. I saw his lips twitching with each stride."

Batu's hands instinctively moved to his mouth.

"I'm right, aren't I?" She fixed Batu with a stare. Her shrewd eyes seemed to absorb every detail.

He nodded. There was no point in denying it.

"Explain it to me," said the woman.

Batu hesitated. He'd never been asked to do that before, except by his own family.

"It's important that we know," the woman said. She made a tiny movement with her hand toward the dagger she'd tucked into her belt.

"It's hard to explain," he said.

"Try," said the woman. It was more a command than an invitation.

Batu nodded.

"I can't allow myself to become unbalanced. Everything I do with one side of my body must be done in equal measure with the other." Batu swallowed. "That's why I count my steps," he said. He turned to the girl. "And that's why I took your hand in both of mine. Pressure on only one would've become unbearable."

Amia's eyes widened.

"How do you live like that?" she said.

Batu bit his lip. He opened his mouth to speak.

"And more importantly," the woman said, "why do you live like that? Why must you stay balanced?"

The familiar painful images of his sister's anguished face filled his mind, and her desperate screams rang in his ears, drowning out the noise of the of the wind rustling the palms.

"If I don't, bad things will happen to the people I love," he said. "They will experience unimaginable pain and suffering, and it will all be my fault"

"But how can that be true? Have you been cursed, or had a spell cast on you?" Amia said.

Batu shook his head.

"I know it must sound ridiculous, and part of me knows it isn't true, but that doesn't help. What if it is real and I became unbalanced and then something happened to them? I could never forgive myself.

Batu didn't look up. "I understand if you don't want me to join you," he said.

"We don't wish you to leave," said the woman, "but again, I don't think you've told me the whole story."

Batu jerked his head up.

"I have," he said. "I swear it."

"Really?" said the woman. She unsheathed her knife and scraped at the grime under her fingernails with the point.

"Tell me this then. If you have to maintain a balance, how were you able to fight Jenchin? I watched you move freely."

Batu bit his lip. Seemingly nothing went unnoticed.

"It's only happened once before," he said. "When someone's coming for me, it seems I'm able to put aside my need for balance until the danger has passed."

"So you'd be able to fight if we were attacked by brigands or a war party?" said the woman.

"I believe so," he said.

The woman sheathed her knife.

"Well, that's good enough for me," she said. "We're traveling to Bayankot. It's north of here. In the same direction as Arilja, if that's indeed where you're headed.

Batu took a deep breath. Where was he going to go?

"Once we're at Bayankot you'll be free to make your own way."

He nodded.

"What's there," he said. "In Bayankot?"

"Anything you can imagine, " said the woman. "It's not as grand as Arilja, but it's busier. They say that in Bayankot there's a drinking house for every day of the year, a temple for every week, and a way to fulfill every heart's desire."

Batu remembered the promise he'd made to Kolo. He pictured himself riding back to Ekkol with a column of warriors at his back. He could see the Thane's face turn ashen and the growing fear in Taban's eyes as he approached.

Batu smiled.

Perhaps Kolo was right and the gods were guiding him. He glanced around the circle. Maybe this meeting was destined to happen, and it would be in Bayankot that he would find his fortune.

"I'm Varla," the woman said. She didn't offer Batu her hand. "Welcome to our strange little group."

She stood up and looked up at the sky.

"We'll stay here for the night," she said, "then leave at first light."

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