Holiness in spite of myself

All she did was pray in public… If there’s a title she rightly deserves, it’s Knife Destroyer. I make it a total of four, and possibly a sword as well.

It’s annoying that we’ll have to leave an angry priest outside our temple until August, but there are several elephants too, and elephants are very patient.

It was hard to see where the city ended and the surrounding land began: houses were farther apart and vegetable gardens were larger the longer we were underway, that was about all. There wasn’t much of a road, or at least the caravan was wider than any road under it, wider than the square in front of the palace in Pecham. The ground was covered in shit of people and animals, as well as the mud, and the air was full of dust and noise and stink.

It got dark quite suddenly soon after it looked as if we’d cleared the city completely. The landscape was hillier here, very green — I couldn’t see if it was forest or shrubbery or grassland, but it looked like wilderness, not farmland. Animal calls were coming from the hills, and of course camels are also noisy beasts, and there must be goats and sheep with the caravan because I could hear bleating.

In the distance we could see light, fires, either from villages or from the part of the caravan ahead of us. I heard running water to the west, the river that also ran through the city. The best camping spots were close to the river; we weren’t important enough for that, so our assigned place was about half a mile away.

While our guards were making camp and Zahmati was preparing to cook, Maha came to sit between me and Thulo. She was clearly distressed, so I made a seal around the three of us, and she drew us both close inside it.

“The world is much nastier than I thought before I left home!” she said. “Zahmati told me about her life, how her fathers, er ‘bought her free’ from the brothel where she was locked up, they slit everybody’s throats, the boss, the servants, the clients!” She shuddered, and Thulo laid a hand on her shoulder. “Perhaps someone gave them the job, she says, to shut the brothel down. But she still doesn’t know why they rescued her instead of killing her with the rest. It’s not as if she was worth a lot. And she makes jokes about it that give me the chills!”

Then we had to stop talking and open the seal, because Zahmati came to bring the food: chicken cooked in almond milk with lots of saffron and honey and rose-water and spices, rolled in flatbread. Delicious!

It was humid now, oppressive, much too warm. I was about to put a seal over the tent to pray in more comfort –it wouldn’t help against the weather, of course, but I wanted a safe place that guarded itself so I could concentrate on something besides being on guard– when I suddenly thought of Vurian in Dadán and his portable temple. I took Thulo to the river, which had a gravelly bottom, and we picked up four stones each, all about the same size, fitting comfortably in our hands. Bhalik came along to guard us, looking as if he found it very strange but saying nothing about it.

Now it wasn’t only humid, but there was a metallic taste to the air, a bit like hot iron and a bit like blood. “Tastes of danger,” Bhalik said. “Of the king from the north.” Of course he’d been there when Athal made the earth shake– and indeed, the earth was trembling beneath our feet. There was a vortex of power, like a churn inside my body. Bhalik had been the first to notice, and he was affected worst, “can’t see any more!” so we had to lead him back to the camp, guarding our guard.

Soon Thulo was as badly stricken as Bhalik. and perhaps I’d been holding it off when taking care of the other two because it didn’t properly hit me until we were back in the camp. The earth was not only trembling now but shaking, sand and pebbles were jumping up inside the tent. We put the stones around the sides and raised a seal. Maha and Zahmati worked together to put a seal on the floor– it was an excellent one that made the pebbles lie still, but they couldn’t stop the sand from leaping into the air.

As we huddled in the tent, all six of us –Khali in the doorway, still on guard as much as he could– it started to rain, too, lashing sheets of black water like being under a waterfall. “The dandar are pissing on us,” Zahmati said.

After what felt like a whole night of shaking the earthquake subsided.

Then, suddenly, there was a jolt like a whip-crack that made the ground slam into my buttocks. And another, and another. The tent collapsed on top of us.

When we had got ourselves out and put the tent sort of upright again, Khali stayed inside, praying– I couldn’t understand a word but it was clear that it was that, on his knees, repeating the same phrase over and over again with what sounded like different names. We left him to it, and when he came out he was all the strong courageous bodyguard again.

It was morning now, still dark from the clouds though the rain was gone, but there was a definite pink glow in the east. We put the travelling temple up in front of the tent for morning prayers. Children came to look, a camel or two, immediately pulled out by the children, and a handful of adults, One was a rich-looking man with a grey beard who stayed behind to talk to me.

We didn’t have much language in common, but it was clear that he thought it a good thing that we were praying, because the two dandar of the caravan had fled when the earth started shaking. We were — and he said something about ships that would bump into each other if they didn’t have the metal things shaped like this, crossing his hands.

“Oh! An anchor!” I said, and I could see how a temple could serve to keep the caravan anchored to the world.

He nodded. “Ankhar.” The way he said it sounded a little like the name of the Nameless, and though I was practically sure that he didn’t mean that it still made me shiver.

Then we travelled, and found out that a camel’s back is not a good place to sleep.

The hills were steeper here and more densely wooded. We could see that the storm or the earthquake or both had made trees fall, in some places whole rows where one had toppled the other. The road was still clear, though, probably because people were clearing it at the head of the caravan.

That evening we made the temple larger, and many people gathered around it, some even put stones of their own down. It seemed that important people, or who at least thought themselves important, had larger stones. It didn’t make a difference, each stone picked up a share of anea whatever its size. Some children were bold enough to come in– we didn’t mind, any people were welcome, as long as the camels stayed outside.

Zahmati had cooked lamb this time, prepared just like the chicken. There must be a whole herd of sheep and lambs travelling with the caravan, and camels carrying crates full of fowl! And people taking care of all the camels and the livestock. “We have a problem there, there are too few of us,” Khali said when I mentioned that, “but I’m paying someone to look after the camels.”

“You mean you won’t kill him,” Bhalik said.

“I mean,” Khali said, “that I didn’t kill him three years ago, and now he’s in my debt and he and his wife and children are taking care of the camels.”

In the evening, Maha said that she would like to sing “in a civilised language” now, and we did, sitting on the mud floor in the tent that started to look like forest floor after some singing. Khali and Bhalik were taking turns standing guard outside because they both wanted to sing as well. Zahmati’s headscarf slipped but she was too concentrated to notice it; I could see that she had scars in her face as if someone had raked her with a pitchfork, and one of her ears was missing. I softly draped the scarf back over her head but she didn’t notice that either.

We left the temple where it was– we’d want to use it again in the morning, after all. Our firepot was serving as the temple fire– Zahmati had to cook on the fire of Anshen, but she seemed to have got used to that very quickly. She made flatbread with onions in the morning. A young couple brought their little child to add his pebble to the temple, and when he saw my bread he pointed at it, “Onion!”

“Yes, you may,” I said and broke off a piece for him, I didn’t have time to eat it all anyway before people would want me to be their anchor again.

It was another very tedious day of travelling and seeing nothing, after another night in which we hadn’t really slept though the singing had refreshed us. At the end of it we were shown to a place near the river, flat and roomy, so we could make the temple larger still; so many people came to add their stones that the perimeter was a low wall.

Master Azbabe and his wife came to talk to us: it would be good if we kept up the morning and evening prayers! We didn’t intend to stop, so that was easy. “Holiness,” he said, and I tried to explain that that was something we called priestesses of Naigha, of death, and I was definitely a priestess of life! But it was probably too late to give the people something better to call me.

“This is strange weather,” Azbabe said, “usually at this time of year the rainy season starts one moon earlier!” We’d had rain with the storm and the earthquake, but not the kind of rain that falls all day at the beginning of the season, and at dusk and dawn after some weeks. The clouds were still in a circle around us, and we couldn’t see if the weather travelled with us or we’d get under the clouds at some point. The camels thought it was strange too, they were restless and noisy.

Azbabe hugged Thulo, and Dunya hugged me: she smelt of milk under the sweet perfume, but she didn’t have a baby with her, perhaps it was in their own tent. Then Azbabe hugged me and Dunya hugged Thulo, and they left, leaving us to the service.

Afterwards the man with the grey beard who we’d seen before –and who we now knew was Pesar, the owner of much of the caravan and the person who had commissioned it in the first place– sent his servants to take us to his bath-house. A bath! After only two or three days I was already completely filthy from all the dust and mud and camel droppings. The bath-house was a tent with draperies of silk and brocade and linen. “First the women, then the men,” one of the servants said, and to Zahmati, “you shouldn’t cook”. It was a while until she understood that he meant that other people would cook for us, and she could have a bath with everybody else.

Khali handed Thulo a spare sword when I went in. He looked a bit uneasy –I know he prefers knives and isn’t competent with a sword at all, perhaps I should teach him– but he took it anyway. We women went into the tent, where a servant girl undressed us in the anteroom. Zahmati wasn’t only short an ear, but a breast as well, and she had scars everywhere, from lashings on her back, burns on her thighs… The maid was disgusted, Maha shocked, and I mostly angry. “Clients,” Zahmati said with a shrug.

“Bad clients?” I asked.

“All clients are bad.” I thought I’d seen different in Kushesh, but not enough to really have an opinion, so I kept silent about it.

The inner part of the tent was of leather, and there was a huge tin tub in it, full of warm water. We washed, we were dried and rubbed with oil smelling of roses, and we could put on clean clothes! I was glad I’d got several sets of the Ishey clothes, just like Maha.

When the men got into the bath they gave their swords to Maha and Zahmati, and I got an extra sword as well. After a while –they must have had quite enough time to wash– I heard Thulo’s voice but couldn’t make out any words, and then the servant girl said “What? No boys either?” in an incredulous voice.

“What?!” Maha and I said together. but then Thulo came out of the bath tent and walked away with Maha while Zahmati and I guarded the tent against nothing in particular. We saw them smooching in the distance and they came back arm in arm– apparently they resolved whatever was between them. Our guards were still inside and we left them there for a while, giving their swords to the girl to give to them.

We got roast chicken with rice that was bright yellow with saffron, and gossip from the servants: Pesar was on his way to marry a princess and take her to Ahsas to present her to the emperor.

That night was the first time we had a decent night’s sleep. We didn’t bother to put up both tents, we were used to sleeping all together anyway, almost in a heap like kittens.

In the morning a young couple gave me a small bag of incense, asking me to bless their unborn child. I thought I wouldn’t know how to do that, but I used the incense in the ordinary service and drew them close to the fire and said an extra prayer to Timoine. I’m really becoming a priestess of all the good gods now, I hope nobody dies, because I don’t know how to be a priestess of Naigha!

People were now using our fire-pot as temple fire, throwing herbs and incense on it and kneeling beside it to pray. Zahmati didn’t like that at all, because it made it very hard to cook! I resolved to ask Pesar for another fire-pot, he was likely to have a spare.

Thulo and I drove our camels close together so we could talk. It was mostly about power– whether you could store power in an object, like wine in a barrel. I showed him the bag of temple stones. There was certainly power in those now, but we hadn;t put it in, it had come through use. (I wasn’t even sure the stones were our own original stones; probably not, though they were about the same size and shape.) And I’d put power into knives and things like that, but that had been to use immediately, not to store it.

But our enemies could tap power from people and they weren’t using it, unless it was to make the strange weather, of course. In other circumstances I’d go to investigate, but being the temple priestess I couldn’t very well risk that. “I think the power is stored in a person, or in people,” I said, not very sure of it but it could hardly be anything else in the circumstances. And another frightening thought: our enemies might be right here, in the same caravan.

We tried to see if the strange weather was going along with us so we stayed in the eye of the storm, and we thought yes, or we’d have reached the cloudy part already. The hole in the storm did seem to get smaller when we prayed. And the lack of the normal seasonal rain on top of it– someone must be collecting all the rain and turning it into the storm.

In the middle of the day we reached the top of the hills. There was a plain behind it, slightly lower than the top, mostly planted in little fields with ditches to water them. (It’s strange, at home we had ditches to lead the water away, here they have ditches to lead the water to the crops.) We made camp, even though it wasn’t nearly evening yet, and we put the temple up as well.

The ground here was so muddy that I suggested using the other tent as floor for the tent we were using, and Khali and Bhalik thought that was a good idea too.

In the distance there was a huge white thing that looked like a mountain at first, but it turned out to be a building. Perhaps that was the palace of Pesar’s princess! And Mehili had said that she knew someone who lived in the first manor-house we’d pass; that might mean that the princess was her friend’s daughter. Then this must be where the red-haired child slaves lived who her friend had bought.

No time to look into that, though: the moment we’d raised the temple people came to me, as caravan priestess, for advice. One woman asked what to do about her husband, who had married another wife as well. “That’s really not something I can advise about,” I said, “where I come from men have only one wife, and women have only one husband!”

She wanted to know if there were many women from her country in Valdyas, and I told her about Shayari at the Spotted Dog and all her friends who were from here as well. She went back thoughtful, leaving me with the uncomfortable feeling that I might have goaded her to leave her husband.

Then a young man came, “Holiness, could you please come and bless my wife, she has nightmares from the storm!”

I alerted Thulo that I was going. Shall I come along? he asked, but I said I’d call him when I needed him. I had Bhalik at my back– I couldn’t go anywhere without one of our bodyguards, and anyway the whole caravan or at least our part of it knew by now who I was and would keep me from harm.

The young wife, Pnimah –they were both really young, still in their teens– was leaning against a camel saddle, very pregnant, scared, short of breath. When I grasped her hands they were cold. I threw a cloak of anea around both of us, but someone or something was pulling at it, at Pnimah, taking power from her that I could see going away in a stream, towards the white house.

Gods! Now I needed Thulo! And a sharp knife. He came when I called him, carrying the box of hospital knives, accompanied by Maha. “Let’s do it in the temple,” he said, “that’s safe already, you can’t make a strong enough seal here.” Bless journeymen who do better than their masters!

We carried Pnimah into the temple, and she cried out in pain as if whoever was pulling at her had given a sharp yank, but she calmed down once she was inside: “I can breathe here!”

I put on a leather riding glove and heated a knife in the fire. “Someone is trying to pull your spirit out of you, I’ll cut that off so they can’t any more. The knife won’t touch your body, it’s like cutting hair.” So it was, a bit to my surprise, it went much more smoothly than with Khali or Bhalik, though the knife was ruined like the others. Nine left– I wish I’d taken the whole gross, not only the box of samples!

Pnimah cried out again, but this time it was because her waters broke.

There were so many people in and around the temple that I didn’t even have to raise my voice to say “We need a midwife, or at least someone who knows about birthing!” When my youngest brother was born I was eight, and I was there, of course, all of us were, but the midwife only let Aine help, who was fourteen and already her apprentice.

Maha and five other women were there at once. They started to send all the men out of the temple, but Pnimah wanted her own husband to stay and a midwife made him crouch so Phimah could sit on his thighs.

Lightning was crackling above us. I knew that I had to keep the temple safe, and my gut feeling said I should do it with the sword so I raised it in the air. There was someone next to me, his right arm hooked through my left, a sword in his left hand raised like mine.

Lightning struck our swords, but Anshen and I stood firm and let the power flow into the ground harmlessly. It was too strong to capture and use, at least for me! Behind us, the fire blazed up into a pillar, melting the copper fire-pot. The air smelt of a smith’s forge with a whiff of burnt meat– I heard Zahmati curse, “that was dinner! Goat!”

Then another sound came through the rumbling and crackling: the cry of a newborn child. The lightning stopped at the same moment, and my companion was gone, as I’d expected. I carefully laid my red-hot sword on the ground — I hope the good sword from Essle isn’t ruined, I expect to need it later as well!

The baby’s father handed him to me. “Holiness, please bless my son!” Well, yes, I think I’m really a holiness now, if a god stands at your side to fight together it can’t be denied. I held the baby near the fire, not too close because it was still too hot, and then gave him to Pnimah who put him at her breast at once.

The air around the fire was still full of power. Some of it was Pnimah’s, flowed back into the temple, and I put my arms around her and we gathered it up together. She couldn’t get all of it back, but it was enough. I could see the rest hovering over the ruined fire-pot. I’d ask Pesar for a new one — two, so Zahmati could have one just for cooking. Perhaps we could fix the new one for the temple to the ruined one, like Rava’s knife that was now part of the staff of office in Dadán.

Now I noticed that I was exhausted. And HUNGRY. Why does this kind of thing make me so hungry? All I could do for a while was sit in the temple doorway while people brought me all kinds of delicious things to eat. Maha sat down next to me and said, “huh, delivering a baby is really different from a foal!”

“Yes, that’s because a woman is really different from a mare!” I said.

I hadn’t seen Thulo since we carried Pnimah into the temple together, but now he came back, talking with a man I hadn’t seen before. “This is my new friend, Keshwar, he wants to ask you something.”

“Your blessing, Holiness,” the man said, “I have two wives and no children yet, if one woman doesn’t have children it’s her, but if they both don’t have children it’s the man! My first wife isn’t much to look at, it could have been that, but my second wife, well, I paid four wainwheels for her!”

I thought (but didn’t say) that marriage woes were none of my business, but apparently everything is my business now, and of course a blessing won’t hurt. I tried to see what was wrong –telling him that many Valdyan doctors can do that, and I’m not a doctor but I did learn a thing or two– but I only succeeded in giving him a painful sting. Then, when I put a bit of protection on him, I saw that a bit of his anie was missing, and in a significant place too, just above his penis. “Did anything happen to you when you were young?” I said, because I could see that it had gone missing when he was just growing into a man.

He shrugged. “Just went to the priest, blessing for marriage.” If that had been a blessing it had gone spectacularly wrong, it was more like a curse! I could perhaps try to repair it, and took him into the temple, where Maha and Zahmati were sitting. He was very impressed by, I think, Maha’s hair. “Is she a holiness too?”

“She’s a horse-doctor,” I said –I didn’t mean to be rude, but I was still tired and cranky– but Maha grinned and said, “Of course I’m a holiness! Let me look at you– eeek!”

“That’s a dandar thing,” Zahmati offered, “what they took from him, they gave to an old man so he’d get it up again. That sort of thing only works when you believe in it, though.”

Well, in that case we could let him believe that it was fixed. I took the protection off him, and as much of the dandar thing as I could, and grabbed some of the power that was still hanging around the ruined fire-pot and made a patch of it to stick on the damaged spot. It eased into place as if had always been there, and I think Keshwar could feel it because he drew himself upright and took a deep breath.

Then I noticed the two women in the temple door, a plain but aristocratic-looking one of about forty, and a round one half her age with a very sweet face. Keshwar was right in the middle, thirty or so. I gave him back to them, “here he is, all whole and as good as new!” and they knelt to kiss my feet.

By now the time for the evening service had long gone, but after everything that had happened I didn’t mind one bit.

Thulo told me what he’d heard from the camel drivers, Keshwar and his friend who he’d been talking to while I was being pampered and fed. He’d found out that there was a temple of the Resurgence in the palace, with “people from the south who have names as if they’re from the north”. What I really wanted was to go there, perhaps even in my body, and find out if it was really Mehili’s acquaintance’s house and talk to the child-slaves in that case. “I wish my hands weren’t bound!” I said, but to be honest I rather liked my sudden priesthood too. Especially as it would probably only last the journey, I don’t know if I have the endurance to live my whole life this way!

We tried to see something with our minds, but we were stopped by what Maha called “a nasty scary seal”. Yes, that was the Resurgence all right. Which we’d have to deal with, but not late at night after a day like this, and we crawled into the tent and slept until morning.

We started the morning service as if nothing had happened, except that we used the melted fire-pot because we didn’t have a new one yet. Halfway though a young girl came in, dressed in a white gown, a red gown over that, and a green gown over that (I was surprised that she wasn’t melting) and with jewels on her hands and feet, in her hair, and around her neck. She came to stand next to me with an air of “this is my temple”, but I ignored her until the end of the service.

Then she burst out in questions: “Is this where the pillar of fire was? Are you the holiness? Is my fiance here?” She must be Princess Samada, Master Pesar’s betrothed. And, apparently, all of her elephants. Very interested elephants. The two in front poked at the seal with their trunks and moved a few pebbles. I patted both of them on the trunk and grinned at the handlers, who grinned back. There are few creatures in the world as curious as elephants, as far as I know, and they definitely have a spirit.

A big man in rich clothing came out from between the elephants. “Is that your father?” I asked Samada. “No, he’s the priest, Father isn’t here, I’m only a girl! He’s a creep, the priest, but Father gave him room to make his temple, so what can I do? I’m glad I’m gettimg away.”

“But you still use his temple, even though he’s a creep?”

She shrugged. “One’s got to pray, no? But I don’t want him to marry us, you should marry us!”

“Then I have to do it the way we do it in my country, I don’t know how it’s done in your country! Where I come from it’s usually an old woman doing it, who can’t have children any more.” She looked at me with an assessing expression, as if she was trying to decide if I was old enough. “Ah, well,” I said, “I’m not going to have any children either, I might as well do it.” So now I’m a priestess of the Mother too!

All the time we’d been talking, the priest had been trying to enter the temple but couldn’t get in. He stood there, fuming silently, and I could see that he had the strength of a grand master but in a tradition I didn’t know at all. His frustration was made worse by the elephants, who did come in, at least the first two, there was no room for the others who stood around the temple in a circle.

Samada stroked the elephants. “This is Zarzanesh and that is Khattio. Zarzanesh is exactly my age and Khattio two years younger. Do you like elephants?”

“Yes, a lot,” I said. “Only they’re very large.”

“They’re going to grow a lot larger!” she said. “These are still young. They’re part of my dowry. I don’t mind marrying a merchant and not a king, kings are old, at least eighty! Pesar is only half as old as a king, only a litte old. When he dies I’m going to run his business, he doesn’t know that yet but it’s the truth, I know everything I need for that. I may be a girl but that doesn’t mean Father didn’t let me learn.”

The priest tried to come in again, but failed, and gave up and left. I wanted to call Pesar– if I’m going to perform a marriage between the elephants (well, not between the elephants, but with an elephant on each side) I’d rather get it over with. But Pesar was outside talking to Thulo, and didn’t hear me.