The Demon King

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Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight. He’d tied a bandana over his mouth and nose, but his eyes still stung and teared from the sulfur fumes that boiled upward from the bubbling ooze. He extended his digging stick toward a patch of plants with bilious green flowers at the edge of the spring. Sliding the tip under the clump, he pried it from the mud and lifted it free, dropping it into the deerskin bag that hung from his shoulder. Then, placing his feet carefully, he stood and retreated to solid ground.

He was nearly there when one foot broke through the fragile surface, sending him calf-deep into the gray, sticky, superheated mud.

“Hanalea’s bloody bones!” he yelped, flinging himself backward and hoping he didn’t land flat on his back in another mudpot. Or worse, in one of the blue water springs that would boil the flesh from his bones in minutes.

Fortunately, he landed on solid earth amid the lodgepole pines, the breath exploding from his body. Han heard Fire Dancer scrambling down the slope behind him, stifling laughter. Dancer gripped Han’s wrists and hauled him to safer ground, leaning back for leverage.

“We’ll change your name, Hunts Alone,” Dancer said, squatting next to Han. Dancer’s tawny face was solemn, the startling blue eyes widely innocent, but the corners of his mouth twitched. “How about ‘Wades in the Mudpot’? ‘Mudpot’ for short?”

Han was not amused. Swearing, he grabbed up a handful of leaves to wipe his boot with. He should have worn his beat-up old moccasins. His knee-high footwear had saved him a bad burn, but the right boot was caked with stinking mud, and he knew he’d hear about it when he got home.

“Those boots were clan made,” his mother would say. “Do you know what they cost?”

It didn’t matter that she hadn’t paid for them in the first place. Dancer’s mother, Willo, had traded them to Han for the rare deathmaster mushroom he’d found the previous spring. Mam hadn’t been happy when he’d brought them home.

“Boots?” Mam had stared at him in disbelief. “Fancy boots? How long will it take you to grow out of those? You couldn’t have asked for money? Grain to fill our bellies? Or firewood or warm blankets for our beds?” She’d advanced on him with the switch she always seemed to have close to hand. Han backed away from her, knowing from experience that a lifetime of hard work had given his mother a powerful arm.

She’d raised welts on his back and shoulders. But he kept the boots.

They were worth far more than what he’d given in trade, and he knew it. Willo had always been generous to Han and Mam and Mari, his sister, because there was no man in the house. Unless you counted Han, and most people didn’t. Even though he was already sixteen and nearly grown.

Dancer brought water from Firehole Spring and sloshed it over Han’s slimed boot. “Why is it that only nasty plants growing in nasty places are valuable?” Dancer said.

“If they’d grow in a garden, who’d pay good money for them?” Han growled, wiping his hands on his leggings. The silver cuffs around his wrists were caked with mud as well, deeply embedded in the delicate engraving. He’d better take a brush to them before he got home, or he’d hear about that too.

It was a fitting end to a frustrating day. They’d been out since dawn, and all he had to show for it were three sulfur lilies, a large bag of cinnamon bark, some razorleaf, and a handful of common snagwort that he could pass off as maidenweed at the Flatlander Market. His mother’s empty purse had sent him foraging in the mountains too early in the season.

“This is a waste of time,” Han said, though it had been his idea in the first place. He snatched up a rock and flung it into the mudpot, where it disappeared with a viscous plop. “Let’s do something else.”

Dancer cocked his head, his beaded braids swinging. “What would you…?”

“Let’s go hunting,” Han said, touching the bow slung across his back.

Dancer frowned, thinking. “We could try Burnt Tree Meadow. The fellsdeer are moving up from the flatlands. Bird saw them there day before yesterday.”

“Let’s go, then.” Han didn’t have to think long about it. It was the hunger moon. The crocks of beans and cabbage and dried fish his mother had laid up for the long winter had evaporated. Even if he’d fancied sitting down to another meal of beans and cabbage, lately there’d been nothing but porridge and more porridge, with the odd bit of salt meat for flavor. Meat for the table would more than make up for today’s meager gleanings.

They set off east, leaving the smoking springs behind. Dancer set a relentless, ground-eating pace down the valley of the Dyrnnewater. Han’s bad mood began to wear away with the friction of physical exertion.

It was hard to stay angry on such a day. Signs of spring bloomed all around them. Skunk cabbages and maiden’s kiss and May apples covered the ground, and Han breathed in the scent of warm earth freed from its winter covering. The Dyrnnewater frothed over stones and roared over waterfalls, fed by melting snow on the upper slopes. The day warmed as they descended, and soon Han removed his deerskin jacket and pushed his sleeves past his elbows.

Burnt Tree Meadow was the site of a recent fire. In a few short years it would be reclaimed by forest, but for now it was a sea of tall grasses and wildflowers, studded with the standing trunks of charred lodgepole pines. Other trunks lay scattered like a giant’s game of pitchsticks. Knee-high pine trees furred the ground, and blackberry and bramble basked in sunlight where there had once been deep pine-forest shade.

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