The GM told me about the point in any narrative where the protagonist can’t do anything else than go along with it. “We reached that point in Zameshtan,” I said. He agreed.
We travelled for a few more days through fields that were mostly planted with a strange kind of grain. “Millet,” Samada said, “that’s for farmers, it makes chickens fat, not for civilized people to eat!”
My apprentices and acolytes were dealing with the village priest and the villagers, I didn’t get into the villages myself any more. On the one hand it was a pity, but I really can’t do everything myself! I appointed the two girls who had wanted to dance for Dayati to organise the bits of service for the various gods, and they were so enthusiastic about having a task in the temple that I trusted it would go right. (Perhaps not as I’d have done it, but right nevertheless.)
On the second or third day of travel Cheliân brought a young couple with a baby. “The baby is ill,” he said, “she has a fever, we don’t know what’s wrong.” I couldn’t see what was wrong either, but I did see that the father and mother were ill too — it was as if something had been taken away from them, like the man who had been “blessed” for marriage. “It’s because of that soldier,” the woman said, “he came into our house and collapsed and died.”
I could imagine that someone already dying of some disease could have infected a whole family, so I took Thulo and Maha along to investigate the house. We passed more millet fields with ditches between them, but they seemed to be to water the fields rather than to drain them, the water coming from a large square pond just outside the village.
The village itself looked deserted — as if daily life had been suspended. There were only a few old people in the fields, nobody tending the vegetable gardens around the houses, no teenagers running errands, no children playing in the streets., though we saw a child’s face peeking out from a doorway.HH
It turned out that a whole patrol of soldiers had come into the village a week or so ago. Usually they got enough advance warning that the young people could flee into the forest, but this time thney’d come by surprise and taken a dozen of them away. For the slave market, I gathered. We investigated the couple’s house — well, first Maha took so much of the baby’s fever away that she was strong enough to cry, and even to nurse. We let nobody into the house, not even the people who lived there or the elderly man we thought was the local priest.
In the middle of the house — one room, whitewashed, very bare, with a veranda on the outside — there was a place where power had clearly leaked into the ground. It did look as if that had stopped, like the place in Albetire that we’d found, only not as extensive. “We should clean it!” Maha said, and made a sweeping motion with her hands. The children immediately took that up and swept the house with palm leaves and whatever else they could find, then went out into the village where we could hear them laughing. Later we found out that they’d recruited all the village children too, and swept all the houses! There wasn’t a bit of bad influence left in any house when they were finished. and some of the gifted children had little eddies of air and small whirlwinds following them. Not exactly creatures, there was no consciousness, just a bit of ryst that was almost anie.
I asked who was their local god — a bit hard, because Cheli&aicrc;n had to translate everything — and the village priest said “we worship Barfi, the forest lady” and took me to a hut that must be a temple because there was a wooden statue in it. I didn’t sense any presence, though. The statue was of a woman with snakes for fingers and toes, snake heads for nipples, and the painted slit eyes of a snake. I paid my respect anyway, but when we prayed later we only called on our own gods.
By now, some of the doctors had arrived. I’d also called Biruné, because we now knew what sickness it was: the silver sickness, where you get spots without any feeling and when it goes too far, or when it gives you a fever, you usually die. The sickness is in the blood, and I knew that Birune’s sister Asa –now Doctor Cora in Turenay — had found a remedy for it by sifting the blood with semsin; perhaps Biruné would have the same talent.
Apart from the baby, the infected were men and women of all ages. An old woman –she turned out the be the priest’s wife — volunteered to have the treatment tried on her, “if I die it’s no big deal!”, though her husband protested at that, of course. Biruné appeared, not convinced that she’d have her sister’s talent, though she understood what the doctors were doing and gave useful suggestions. “They have to be excited for the blood to flow! I can do that.” Well, there are some things dandar do really well.
It took the whole day and part of the night for the doctors to get it right, but then they pronounced the old woman cured. They were learning all the time: it went much faster as they got better at it. The baby was last — “she’s so small! I don’t dare make the cut!” one of the doctors said, but they did it anyway — I think on a foot — and sifted her blood as well.
Then it was the afternoon of the following day, and everybody was exhausted and famished. Even I was, though all I’d been doing was guarding and sending messages between the village and the caravan. There was carpfrom the square pond. as juicy as those from the mill-pond at home, and a grainy kind of porridge that must be the ubiquitous millet. It tasted not at all bad.
At some time people had come from the caravan and built a temple in tphe village; there had to be a service, after all! If I’d officiated I must have done it in my dream, because I didn’t remember it at all. On second thoughts it must have been Cheliân who officiated.
When we got back to the camp our young hunters weren’t there. Gone ahead to scout out Ghilas. Well, they’d probably get into trouble, I knew them too well by now to doubt that, but I didn’t doubt either that they’d get out of ttouble again. What was worse was that Bhalik and Khali had gone ahead too, probably to find their enemies. I didn’t begrudge them their revenge, but after having had bodyguards for so long it I felt strangely unprotected.
Before we went to the village the army had send out some scouts, and we caught up with them the next day. Bhalik and Khali were there too, one with a black eye and the other with his arm in a sling. “We caught a band of Moram’s men,” the scout sergeant said. “Slavers, ten of them. Three are still alive, do you want to question them?”
Yes, I did! When they were brought to me one of the men turned out to be a woman, the only gifted one of the lot. They were all wearing what looked like bits of scavenged uniform, much battered and not only in this fight.
“Well,” I said, “better explain yourselves.”
“What do you want to know? Are you going to mess with my head, too?”
“Who’s been messing with your head?” I thought I knew the answer but I wanted to hear it from her.
“The boss of course. He’d get us all into his special room and then you’d wake up and know nothing except that you want to fight. And he gets all funny from it too, weird-like.” She couldn’t say what exactly was weird, but her spirit had scars all over, of the same sort that Bhalik had but more as if she’d been drained from a lot of small cuts, repeatedly.
I had to suppress a shudder. “So your boss sent you to get slaves from the villages. And then?”
She tried to shrug but a wounded shoulder prevented that. “You get your pay. We only get paid when we come back with slaves. We’re slaves ourselves.”
“Not any longer,” I said, “the king has forbidden all slavery in his country.”
“Tell that to the boss!”
“I intend to do that. Now what shall we do with you?” The sergeant didn’t want to enlist them as soldiers, “they’re rabble! Murderers!”, and I couldn’t use them myself, or rather, I didn’t trust them one bit. But on the other hand, executing them would be too harsh, they’d only been doing the job they were forced to do. I briefly considered setting them free so they could go to the city. But then we’d have to give them something to live on, and they’d go and tell all their companions. A good thing on the one hand –it would leave Moram without most of his soldiers — but on the other hand, frankly, we couldn’t afford it. And if we let them go without pay, they’d rob and murder to stay alive.
I didn’t have an asnwer, and sent them away with their keeper again.
Some of the hunters were here too; they’d found the patrol originally, and alerted our scouts. The others had gone with the freed captives to take them back to their village, and they’d be away for another couple of days. At least we’d be easy to find.
Now I told Bhalik and Khali about their daughter’s decision. They protested — “we don’t really want to get so close to the gods! We serve you, that’s as far as we’ll go, we don’t want to have any more to do with any gods until Naigha comes to get us!”
That was a problem. Zahmati had said that if one or both of her fathers didn’t come back from a fight they’d marry anyway, but I didn’t want to let it come to that.
In the evening service, the two young women I’d appointed had a surprise: several small boys with still-high voices, as well as girls of all sizes, sang the First Invocation. It was still a bit ragged, but moving nevertheless.
I didn’t really get the opportunity to compliment them, because someone came to fetch me to speak to visitors. Two men in rich clothes, who turned out to be His Excellency Bayest, Dignitary of the Realm, and the market master, Rikhi. I knew Khali and Bhalik’s enemies had taken up residence with the market master, so I was very cautious.
Why they were there, of course, was because they’ve heard ‘a rumor’ about the caravan not having slaves. I called for a copy of the king’s proclamation, and Samada came with one in large letters and read it, holding it so the dignitary and the market master could read it too if they wanted. “We were just using it as a writing exercise,” she whispered when she was done.
They were appalled, of course, and left in a huff without another word.
We were camped close to the city now, with three regiments of soldiers guarding one side of our front each. Children came to gawk, and I saw a few get so close that the soldiers pushed them away with the butt of their halberds. One little boy ducked under the halberd and snatched a soldier’s knife away. The soldier started to run after him, but the captain called him back sharply.
Later it was the whores’ turn: most of them young, all of them beautiful. We let them in, but only to have themselves checked by our doctors. There were several men leaning against the closest buildings of the city — town? citadel? mostly a massive castle with haphazard shacks built against and around it — and after a while some of them came sauntering towards the camp. I thought at first that they must be whores too, after all there’s definitely a market for attractive men, but they must be the girls’ pimps, probably their owners.
“Don’t let any of those in,” I said, earning me poisonous looks.
At the morning service there was a group of women in grey who I realised must be the whores. The former whores. Pesar’s second wife came to tell me that they’d all chosen to stay, and to stay together, and the doctors had enlisted them as nurses in the hospital and given them grey uniform cloth to make decent clothes from.
I gave them all names, of course, and later went to talk to them. They knew a lot of things, such as how to get into the fort: the brothel Shenaliya on the north side, where all the soldiers went, had a door that went straight in. “So the boss can come and go without being seen?” I ventured.
“The boss! Don’t make me laugh! He doesn’t fuck. He’s in the Order!”
That chilled me to the bone. “Which Order?”
“Of Archan of course! That’s why he wears white all the time, because he’s one of the Forsworn.”
Forsworn indeed. And I’d seen about a dozen gifted people in the fort while taking a quick look earlier. Officers, or junior members of his Order, or just sources of anea like the woman we’d captured?
Later that day we had a council of war. Each of the princes and the captain from Zameshtan had a different idea about how to go about dealing with the fort. “Burn the whole town to the ground” — that would mean that nobody could take cover, but also kill a lot of innocent civilians. “There are no innocent civilians in Ghilas,” someone said, “it’s all scum, down to the three-year-olds.” But I still didn’t want to be responsible for burning down people’s houses. Fight them, yes, but if even a few were innocent they should at least have a chance.
Any plans to besiege the city were quashed immediately, because the whores and our captives knew that the fort had enough stores to last years. We couldn’t last a week without access to more food.
Finally we parted without a plan, other than “find out as much as possible”.
After the evening service I set out to start doing exactly that. I could see the boss, Miham, in what I supposed was his workroom or even the temple in the main tower of the fort. As I watched him, he became aware of me — or perhaps he had been all the time. “Oh, there’s the little one they’ve sent against me,” he said, or something that meant the same thing, and went on accusing Anshen and all of his followers of being weak, something that doesn’t work on me any more except to make me more and more angry. “Don’t think I’m afraid of you,” I said, earning a mental smirk.
I don’t remember which of us gave up the confrontation first; I certainly couldn’t have fought him then and there, from the tent, while he was in his tower.
“I said I’m not afraid of him,” I told Thulo, “but I am. Very, very afraid.”