Merom

Not completely unexpected. But we didn’t quite expect to have it here. (Also, Sedi got even less time to sort things out than usual, but one thing she did may have made things start to sort themselves out.)

I found myself on a sandy plain, bare except for a few wispy dry plants that smelt strongly of brus. I didn’t know they grew like that, I thought, even before I started wondering what in the world I was doing here. In the distance I could see a young man and woman who had much trouble going forward. I felt I ought to know who they were but the smell was making me light-headed.

Beside me a man appeared, his skin dark blue in the harsh light. “We have to go there,” I said to him and pointed to the other people. “But I can’t!”

“You are strong!” he said, with the formal ‘you’ word that I had trouble mastering in trade Iss-Peranian. “Let’s go together!” He took my hand, and it was easier that way though we still weren’t catching up. I tried to get strength from the ground, but it was barren sand, drained of all power.

“Aren’t there any gods here?” I shouted into the air, exasperated. No answer; there was only a wisp of grey on the horizon that could have been the shadow of Naigha’s mantle, or merely a dust cloud.

As we got closer — we really did get closer now — I saw that the young people were standing ankle-deep in mud, no, it looked like dung. The woman was leaning against the man as if she was about to faint; the man drew a knife. Now I recognised him — it was Thulo, and the woman must be Maha. The knife was steel, gleaming with a blue sheen. Thulo used it to scratch lines in the ground, and the ground must be extraordinarily hard because the blade ground down at every stroke. The lines as he drew them started to burn with small yellow flames. When he finished — it was an octagon — the blade was gone and the hilt caught fire and burnt up as he dropped it.

They were singing now, invocations, and I joined in and heard the man beside me sing in a language I didn’t understand. Ilaini, Velihan, Nima’s own language (yes, that was his name, Nima, perhaps he’d told me while we were walking or I’d known it all along), it was all the same in the spirit.

It was a proper service that Thulo was holding. Maha swept dead leaves and debris out of the temple while he chanted: Nima and I had to wade through it, ankle-deep, knee-deep, hip-deep. When it came to my waist I wondered if I had a sword, I’d arrived here in uniform so I must have, and yes, the sword was at my side. It was a bit too short, but it seemed to grow when I held it in front of me, and it glowed brightly and the light cut a clear path through the rubbish to what turned out to be the entrance of the temple.

Nima’s face got grey first, then he blushed. “I wish he was my apprentice!” he said.

“He’s almost not mine any more,” I said, because it was very clear to me now what was happening.

The temple was just large enough for all four of us to stand up in. Maha suddenly had a bowl of incense — perhaps just her hands — that she censed all the corners with while Thulo finished the service.

There was a tiny fire in the middle of the temple. It was very much of Anshen, though he obviously had a hard time being there at all. Thulo took the fire in his hands, wincing, though it didn’t seem to burn him. When little flames jumped up from it and licked his face, he did get burns, but the skin of his hands stayed whole.

“What now?” Thulo asked. “Back to the camp?” (Is the camp even in this world, I wondered.)

“Your way is not back,” Nima said, “your way is forward.” He was still grey and shaky, but he sounded determined.

“I want to go north!” Maha wailed, but on second thoughts she wanted to stay with Thulo wherever he ended up going. Better for both of them, I thought.

“I think we all have to go forward,” I said. The fiery outline of the temple was gone now, leaving only shallow scratches in the sand. Ahead we could see fires and hear music and singing and shouting.

“Those are uncivilised people,” Nima said, “who don’t even know the name of the Nameless.” That made me want to shout the name of the Nameless to whoever would hear me, after all I’d met the Nameless and called him by his name — not the merciless one of the Resurgence, but Anshen’s estranged brother. But I kept that to myself, like a concealed weapon.

“Do you think that this is where Archan — is that what you call him? — comes into the world now, after your king made the other place fall down on him?” Maha asked. “Would that always happen with gods, that they have to come into the world somewhere?”

I could hardly believe that this was all Athal’s fault. “I don’t know,” I said. “But I’m glad that the Nameless doesn’t come into the world at Dol-Rayen any more, or we’d have this trouble in Valdyas.”

The city was very close now, and it wasn’t hard to walk along the road, though it changed under our feet at every step. I think we got bits of road surface from all our memories, though all of us saw the same things. Some I recognised — a bit of overgrown rutted trail from the farm, cobblestones like in Valdis — and some must come from the others, the mossy lane from Maha, the gravelly path with sharp stones poking through the surface probably from Nima.

It ended, a bit embarrassingly for Thulo, as large paving-tiles made of solid gold. “This is from your city, isn’t it?” Nima asked, beaming.

“No,” Thulo said, “that’s what people say but it’s really only earth. Or stone, or marble, in the rich parts.”

The golden road was barricaded with what looked like a solid wall of gold cartwheel coins. As we got closer it resolved into three piles, like sand-castles, marking the beginning of the city like a wall with gaps. Men, women and children were between us and it, some in a daze, others in ecstasy, coupling in passion without love — so different from Zameshtan! — a man and a woman raping another man, two men fighting with knives in such a state of intoxication that neither of them noticed the wounds.

The closer we got to the city, the smaller it got: a mere toy now, as if I could pick it up and carry it. The fire in Thulo’s hands had shrunk too, not much more than a flame. He blew on it, tried to blow it over the tiny city, but it didn’t take until Maha joined him.

I stood guard. At first I thought I was only Thulo’s guard, but of course I was guarding Maha and Nima just as much. I noticed that the uniform I was wearing was the one I’d been received into the Order with, journeyman’s blue, with a plain blue-dyed leather cap. Nima was wearing only a loincloth, Thulo a long shirt of unbleached linen, Maha breeches and a tunic that looked like deerskin.

It became clear what I was standing guard against, too: there were three young people in front of us, in their teens, the youngest a girl in ragged-looking military clothes, another young woman dressed more provocatively, and a young man in rich silk clothes with what hair he had on his chin teased into a small oiled goatee. They could only be Halla, Sidhan and Orian. I knew soon enough that the military girl was Halla, because the other — who must be Sidhan — addressed her by name, somewhat scathingly.

Orian drew a sword and started to attack Thulo, but I drew mine and caught his attention. “Want to fight, do you?” he asked, and suddenly his silk clothes had been replaced by metal armour, a cuirass and arm and leg plates, and he had a sword in each hand which he twirled annoyingly. I found that I had two swords as well and disarmed him with a quick flick, left, right.

He faltered only for a moment; then his two swords were back. I didn’t have any more patience with him and pressed my swords together hoping to have one long sword instead — and that worked! It was my own bastard sword, sharp and perfectly balanced. I held it in both hands and hit him just under the knee, intending to topple him so he’d have trouble getting up in the heavy armour. I knew that that worked — I’d been on the receiving end of it in training in Solay.

The sword was sharp. His leg plates were imaginary. I cut off his legs at the knee as if they were made of cheese.

One down. Meanwhile, Maha was boxing Halla on the ears, spitting like an angry cat. Halla went down too. Her head hit the ground with a sickening crash.

“I think this one is my enemy,” Thulo said, and faced Sidhan. I was tempted to use the sword on her, too, but he was probably right and this was still part of his master’s trial. I was right when I wrote to Lyse that I expected him to be a master before Ashas.

Though Sidhan was telling him that we were in Ashas, the country of Archan. Perhaps that was the name of the country as well as the city, like Zameshtan. And apparently she did know the name of the Nameless.

“Forget that woman there,” Sidhan said, “I can give you so much more! You are strong, we can work together. Those two” — pointing at Halla and Orian — were just in the way. Kids, they were, sixteen, seventeen years old.” And when he wasn’t forthcoming, “I can teach you so much! You’ve been taught entirely the wrong way.” She was playing the strict schoolmistress now, a bundle of twigs in her hand that looked like willow switches. “Perhaps you need a beating.”

Thulo was still holding the fire of Anshen in his hands. He burnt her twigs. “Ouch! Don’t be like that!”

And she was gone. We were standing just outside a burning city, surrounded by soldiers, children, the young hunters, the rest of our household, and about six hundred onlookers. Two dead bodies were lying at our feet. I was wearing my threadbare nightshirt, the others nothing at all.

“You left the camp!” Zahmati said. “And we couldn’t reach you. There was something wrong with the ground, nobody could move an inch!”

We got breeches and shirts from various soldiers, and Mík and another boy raced to get our own clothes. Thulo was swaying on his feet. “You need to rest,” I said, and immediately some soldiers put up a tent on the spot. I coaxed Thulo and Maha into it and then put a weak seal on it so people would ignore it.

All right, where was Sidhan now? I saw her across the river, to the south, and about sixty gifted people with her. Most or all of them were young. “I want a prince!” I said, and Prince Sharab appeared at my side as if he’d been waiting for it.

I showed him where Sidhan was. “What do you want us to do with her?” he asked. “Catch her? Kill her?”

“Isolate her, to start with. She shouldn’t come back to the city or the camp, or get away.”

“I think I have an idea,” he said, and went to collect troops.

By now many of our soldiers and other people were in the city, and some were already coming out of the city carrying stretchers. The wounded went to the hospital, the dead –several to a stretcher — to a place downwind of the camp.

Groups of soldiers kept passing and greeting me, until I suddenly knew what I had to do. I caught the next squad and asked them to be my escort. “I want to see whether this city has a temple,” I said.

It did: a stone base with a couple of steps, wooden pillars painted red, walls made of reddish wattle-and-daub, a pointy tiled roof. It looked like a temple of Mizran, but I couldn’t sense the presence of any god at all. Inside, there was a wooden statue that just might be Mizran, but arrows and knives were sticking into it as if it had been used for target practice and the top of the head was burnt. “Desecrated,” I said, and the sergeant who was standing next to me said, “The whole city is desecrated.”

“I can’t fix the whole city,” I said, “but we can make a start. I need a team to clean this up, sow the seed and see if it will grow.” The sergeant barked some commands and soldiers went in several directions. The statue was taken away, and I stood thinking while the soldiers demolished the temple around me.

Then a small man was brought to me who I recognised as the smith who had made my new lockpicks. “Holiness,” he said, throwing himself at my feet. “We don’t have a team of oxen, will camels do?” He actually had a plough with him! The sergeant had taken me literally. Well, ploughing the ground wouldn’t do any harm, and perhaps it would do good.

“Camels are perfectly all right,” I said, and sent people to get stones from the river so we could set up a temple as soon as the ploughing was done.

I didn’t know which day it was, and frankly I didn’t care, but I asked the people who opened services for Mizran to come and do that, because the city had to become a trade city again.

Outside the city, a service for the dead was going on at the same time. Cheliân, I thought, but he was back in Ghilas to take care of the surrounding villages. It must be Thulo — and then realised that I couldn’t find Thulo, as if his spirit had gone away. I’d felt a chill wind earlier, but I’d ascribed that to Naigha.

As soon as I could I rushed to the tent. I found several very worried people. Zahmati was wringing her hands, “do you think he’s dead? he’s so cold!” but when I got to Thulo’s side and touched him his spirit came back into his body. Maha, too, stirred and opened her eyes. There was something strange in her eyes — as if she wasn’t the only one in there. And she was saying the same kind of things to Thulo that Sidhan had been saying…

“She’s still inside me!” That was Maha herself, at least.

“Shall I sweep you?” I had the imaginary palm-leaf ready, but she took it from me, “I have to do it myself or I’ll never be sure of it!” She did allow Thulo to help her — it turned out that she’d withdrawn into herself, as she’d done once before, and Thulo’s spirit had been in that private place with her.

Maha vomited a lot while she was sweeping, “that woman makes me so SICK!” and I got some of the worried people, including the ex-whore nurse who had been hanging around Thulo and Maha like a limpet for a while now, to bring water and cloths and clean up. Zahmati came with food, “I’ve made something light, that’s what you need now!” — steamed chicken thighs stuffed with rice, the rice stuffed with a date, and the date stuffed with an almond. I realised that I hadn’t had anything to eat either since last night, and now it was evening again.

When Maha had eaten she was much more like herself. “You’ve slept all day,” she said to Thulo, “now you can sing all night!” She rounded up the Velihan children, and a lot of other children came too, of course. “Who remembers the song of Múzran?”

Some of the older children did, even some who were not Velihan, mostly boys. “I expect I’ll doze off,” I said, “but I do want to be here!”

The wind from the north brought a smell of the jungle, and a slight drizzle. Nobody minded, not even when the drizzle turned to rain. “Rain is of Múzran!” someone said.

I did doze off several times, I think, to wake up to singing every time, and in the morning I felt as if I’d had a whole night’s sleep.

The world was green. Everywhere on the plain, as far as I could see, there was a hazy cover of little blades of grass and leafy sprigs. A boy came from the army with his hands cupped around a tiny three-coloured pansy he’d dug out to show us. The green was even in the city: the ploughed temple ground was a meadow. Unfortunately we trampled it when we used it for the service.

Then we were suddenly travelling again. Part of the caravan went north, lots of animals and few people. Nima came with us, as well as many of the people from his caravan. Also, all three of the elephants, which worried me because I knew by now that they need lots of water and we’d be leaving the river soon. People thought it was sweet of me to be worried, but made it very clear that it wasn’t Her Holiness’ concern.

I could see Prince Sharab in the south, further away than I’d expected, still moving very fast.

After about half a day’s travel the caravan came to a sudden stop, causing some confusion. A soldier came running, “Your Holinesses, you need to come to the front to see something.”

The something was rather grisly: each of a pair of milestones at the roadside had a small pile of corpses next to it, young people, their throats neatly cut. “With a sickle,” a soldier said, “my mate says that you can tell by the way the cut runs.”

“Like harvesting stalks of grain,” I said. The soldier gave me a strange look. “He did use that word. Harvesting. He’s a farmer, or was, before he joined up.”

Between the milestones there was a ditch across the road. It wasn’t more than a hand-span deep, and no wider than my two hands, but it didn’t look as if anything could cross it. The caravan had stopped so suddenly because the animals had refused to cross it.

The ditch was full of power, anea, but it looked like there wasn’t any life left in it. A barrier across the road reminded me of Dadán, but the feel of the power was more like the runoff pit we’d seen in Albetire, as if someone –it must be Sidhan– had killed her companions to take their spirit and used it all up.

Thulo tried to go around the barrier, but got caught in something that showed up like a fishing-line made of power. “Hm, I’d almost think they want us to do that,” he said. “Get caught in their trap.”

I was completely willing to ruin another sword, but I didn’t think that was the answer this time. “Could we build a bridge across it?”

That got the Velihan children enthusiastic at once. “It would have to be a huge bridge! We’ll get everybody to help! Everybody gifted anyway!”

“Lédu!” I called to the ringleader. “Do you think we can build a bridge that can bear an elephant?” Her friend poked her in the back, “no you can’t!” which made her say “Of course we can!”

The problem with having a bridge was that the barrier would still be there. Thulo noticed that the power looked exactly like what Sidhan had used to try to bend him to her will, and called fire into his hands. That worked: it took a lot out of him, but a tiny bit of the stuff in the ditch was burned away. “Let’s all do that!” The children caught on first, then other gifted people, and some people who hadn’t known they were gifted; every one had their own fight against the power, and whoever won that fight could cross. Eventually the ditch was filled with air, then it filled with sand, and everybody else could cross as well, camels and elephants and goats and all.

“We’re all light-bearers now,” someone said, “not just Thulo!”

We hadn’t covered much distance past the milestones when I felt the presence of Sharab disappear.

“Now I’ll teach you to travel out of your body,” I said to Thulo. “On an elephant.” Maha joined us on the elephant, not only because she didn’t want to leave Thulo out of her sight, but also because we needed someone to watch over us.

“Isn’t that what you said I should never do?” Thulo asked.

“You’re a master now,” I said. “It’s still dangerous, but it’s the only way to see what happened, it’s too far away to see just with our mind.”

I didn’t have words in any language we shared to tell Thulo what to do, but I could show him, and then we were soaring above the road in a southerly direction. There was a sprinkling of small minds below us, probably animals, and then a group of gifted people — perhaps as many as eighty — who we didn’t know, and as we got closer I thought they might even be underground. It wasn’t Sharab and his soldiers, or Sidhan, so we weren’t concerned with them now, we’d pass them with the whole caravan anyway.

Further on we did see Sidhan and her crowd. They were feasting. It was hard to see anything in the physical world, but with some effort we could see a large pyre made up of Sharab’s soldiers. It looked like burning corpses, not like burning people alive. I couldn’t see whether Sharab himself was one of them, but I feared the worst.

Sidhan and her companions were eating camel meat, dancing around the pyre, drinking and smoking.

We should go back, I said to Thulo, we’ve seen enough.

We got back to our bodies to find the caravan stopped for the day and not only Maha, but also the limpet girl, and to my surprise Nima, watching over us. “I could have done that,” Nima said, “after all it was our people who taught that to you Valdyans six hundred years ago.”

Were there any Valdyans six hundred years ago? It was probably something like the Ishey claiming they’d invented everything first.

The limpet girl was rubbing my feet. “I know why I don’t do this often,” I said, “it takes ages to get warm!” But the rubbing did its work, and I was only a little stiff when I went to tell the captains what we had seen and to lead the service.

“Could you have a service for the prisoners, too?” a lieutenant asked. “After the usual one? They asked for that.”

It appeared that the captains hadn’t wanted to leave Halla’s and Orian’s soldiers in the city, but taken them along, and made them work for their keep. One of the men came forward, “you see, Holiness, I’m a sergeant of Halla’s, but Sidhan had her under her thumb, and us as well, would you see if — if she’s left something in me? In us? And if that’s so, cut our throats?”

“I don’t think I’ll need to cut your throats,” I said, and laid my hands on each one with a blessing. I sent the ones who were clean — most of them in fact– to one side where they slapped each other on the back in relief, those who had some taint or mark to the other. “Now I’ll give you the means to clean yourselves,” I said, and gave each of them a ryst palm-leaf. Some of them could see it, others only imagine it, but they all succeeded in sweeping themselves clean. “Now if you have a friend with the same problem, you can give them that and tell them what to do.”

When I left the army compound Prince Shab was waiting for me. “Holiness,” he pleaded, “may I please go south?”

Could I send another prince to an almost certain death, the only son of his parents? But somebody had to go, and he was volunteering. “Yes,” I said. “Take at least a hundred troops, and some of the hunters.” I showed him everything we’d seen, and he was gone almost at once.

Thulo had been talking to the limpet girl — her name was, surprisingly, Ysella, not because she was with the Resurgence but because her father had been from Essle — and he and Maha agreed that it wasn’t a bad idea to have her around. She’d been through a lot; a pregnancy when she was far too young had left her barren, and she loved babies and would gladly take care of any that Thulo and Maha had. And before they had any, she could do everything that was needed. “I won’t be jealous of you!” Maha said to Ysella.

I came in just then, and Maha had to tell me that when Sidhan had possessed her she’d been very jealous of everybody who dared even look at Thulo. (Also, when Ysella just got to know Thulo, she’d offered herself as his second wife, but that was cleared up now.) “I do want to learn to defend myself!” Maha said.

“So do I,” I said, “we all need to learn that. It’s not the way we Valdyans use semsin, so not the way Thulo learned from me. I wish we had a dandar, but Biruné is in Ghilas running the hospital.”

“But we do have dandar!” Maha said. “A whole caravan full of Iss-Peranian women!” She ran off and came back with Pesar’s wives, already in the middle of telling them what we needed.

“So,” the first wife said to Thulo, “who would you like most to– no, let’s start from the other side, who would embarrass you most if she got pregnant by you? Her? (Maha), or her? (me) or her? (Zahmati)”

Thulo thought for a while, and he thought it would be me. Then Pesar’s wife said “Excuse me” to me, and did something I could barely feel, as if she touched me under my skin. “What did you do?” I asked.

“Looked at you, so I know what you’re like,” she said, and then did something to Thulo that made him sweat and blush. I caught little bits of thought, but it was hard to tell who they came from, whether she put them in his mind or he thought of it himself. The most flattering was “those will be excellent children”.

In the end, Thulo was strong enough to resist.

“But it’s mostly fear that they use,” Nima said, “and I can help you with that. We know about fear.” It wasn’t clear whether he was talking about himself and his people, or the tradition he’d been taught in. “Are you ready to face your fears?”

“Yes.” Nima put his hands on Thulo’s chest, flat, and then drew them back slowly with a grabbing motion as if he was pulling something out. That gave Thulo even more distress than the dandar‘s doing, but he was strong enough to resist that, too.

“Well done!” Nima said. “I won’t go any further or I will have to see it.” Thulo sat back and wiped his forehead, wincing at the half-healed burns that he’d wear the scars of all his life, a sign of Anshen like the mark on my arm.

“What helps against that?” I asked.

“Nothing. Well, what will shield you is a happy childhood, a harmonious family, work that suits your talents, grandparents who are still alive. But everybody has something they’re ashamed of, that they’d rather not confront again, and it will come out.”

“I have all of those things you mentioned,” I said, “well, only one grandmother who is still alive, but all the rest. Could you please try with me?”

Nima touched me, and I felt him trying, but he couldn’t get hold of me for some reason. He laughed. “You are protected too well,” he said, “it is only Ansen for you.”