On the plain

Sedi is learning to be the boss!

Sorting out Ghilas was taking a couple of days. I was actually having a rest: apart from the temple services and other things that people need a priest for, and sword training, I had time to write letters and have my hair cut by the army barber. I also found a smith to make a new set of lockpicks. Not as good as Rava’s, but I didn’t expect that, they were good enough.

Thulo had, wisely, tasked everybody in the lockup who could hold a needle with making water-bags from goatskins. When he went to look how it was going –with me trailing along but doing my best not to meddle– he noticed that one lot was much better than the others, using one of the legs as a spout. “Who made these?” he asked, and the guard pointed out a woman of about forty, Zivaya.

“What, aren’t they all right?” she asked belligerently.

“More than all right,” Thulo said.

“Then I’ve made them, otherwise I wouldn’t have. I won’t fill them for you, you need boys for that, us girls can’t manage.”

“Hmm, would you like to come along with us?” She showed him her ankle, fastened to the wall with a chain.

“We might be able to do something about that,” Thulo said, “take you to Ashas.”

“Ashas! No, I’d rather stay here and wait for the king’s man to judge us! Miham was a nasty piece of work but his visitors from Ashas were so much worse! They wanted three of the prettiest girls, there wasn’t much left of them the next day! Selevi, that was the boss, northern name though her skin was a lot blacker than yours or mine, and her two flunkies, children, no more than fourteen or so! I don’t mind young boys, it’s nice to teach them something, but these knew everything already and then some! One of the girls had –spirit, I think you say– and they noticed that.”

“Can we talk to her?” Thulo asked.

Zivaya shook her head. “Nah, had to bury her the next day. Now Miham, what he did, he made sure there was no news going to Ashas.” She finished another water-bag and tossed it on the pile.

Thulo thought of something. “Hm, we’ve got no corks, how do we keep them closed?”

“Strip of skin to tie them up,” Zivaya said. “Cut it from the scraps.”

“How long will that take?”

“As long as it takes, love.”

“But how long is that?”

“Look here, I know how long it takes for a man to get off, I’ve done that since I was a girl, but I’ve never cut water-skin ties before, it’ll be finished when it’s finished. When the king comes, perhaps. Though I’ve heard about the new king and I don’t think he’ll care about us, it may be forever.”

“Did you hear that the old king is back?”

“Oh? Well, the old king’s wife taught me to dance when I was eight, with all the other city girls. Then I went to Ghilas when I was twelve, with a man, and before I was twelve and a half I was on my own again. That’s men for you.”

Thulo grinned. “Anything I can do for you?”

“Take good care of that girlie of yours. The redheads are prized most in the south. Can’t she dye that hair?”

“No, that rinses right off.”

“Oh, then she can shave it off and wear a wig. I can get you one, eight wainwheels,” and when Thulo made a noise that sounded like assent, “Khatiya!”

A girl of about eighteen came from where she was working, and Zivaya yanked the wig from her head. Underneath she was completely bald, with pink circles on the dark skin like the women we’d met in Kushesh.

“That’s an illness,” I said, “someone should get a doctor.”

A soldier went to the hospital and came back with Maha and the hospital matron, a former whorehouse-keeper who knew all about women’s ailments. Maha washed her hands with brandy, and slathered more brandy on the girl’s head, then rubbed the skin with foul-smelling salve.

“Eek! That’s such nasty sickness!” the matron said.

“What causes it?” I asked.

“Worms under the skin. There’s a medicine for it but it takes half a year to clear up. If it’s not gone too far. How long have you had this?”

“Dunno, a year, perhaps two.”

Thulo threw the wig into the fire. “Hey!” Zivaya said. “You still owe me eight wainwheels.”

We had a conference with the doctors and the princes: there should be a larger hospital, perhaps more doctors and nurses than only Biruné should stay here, we’d send for more medicine from the city. While we were talking, a messenger pushed through the guards. “Holiness! There are people here who say they have to speak to you urgently! They’re from the south.”

“I’ll see them,” I said, “in the counting-room, I think.” We passed a couple of clerks working, Aftabi among them — clearly she knew about money matters, useful to know.

The people from the south were a man and a woman, not quite in uniform though they were dressed mostly alike. “We were sent with the pay for the regiment,” they said. “Eight of us. But we met the Order of Halla astin Archan on our way, and we’re the only ones left. ”

“And I suppose this Halla took the money too,” I said, and in an aside to Thulo, didn’t I tell you that we’d never get that money?

They were frightened of me being a priestess, and a soldier, and in an Order though not the same one, but before they fled they’d told me that every master of Archan had their own Order, a little kingdom. And that there was famine and disorder in Ashas and the lands around it.

“What about the emperor?” I asked.

“Pray you never meet the emperor! He’s even worse than the king of Valdyas, who has children brought from all over the world to eat them for breakfast. That’s why there aren’t any children in the towns and cities!”

I had a hard time not to laugh. Mild, friendly Athal had quite a name in this country — perhaps because of the earthquakes. “He has a family of his own,” I said “four children and a foster-child last time I was there. And there are plenty of children all over Valdyas! I don’t know who told you those stories, but they’re not true.”

“Of course you would say that!”

I called another conference with the captains, Pesar, the cargo-masters, and the head doctors. Famine in Ashas, disorder, there might not be much opportunity for trade. Perhaps only the people who had other business in Ashas should go on, and the greater part of the caravan go to a place where there was money to be made. Pesar spoke against that, “it’s better that the people follow and obey than be disobedient by coming after us when they’ve been told to stay.”

We resolved to leave most of the trade goods behind so we could carry more food. “We should have a bank,” someone said, and the way he explained it sounded like a cross between a trading-house and the Temple of Mizran: everybody brought in their goods and got a token of their share, so the goods were safe — unless someone else conquered Ghilas again. If the total increased in value everybody shared the profit, if it decreased everybody shared the loss, in proportion to their share.

I heard Pesar talk with the Khas boys later, saying “Of course you may win the war, as long as you’re on our side!” I hadn’t heard what that was about, but I could only agree.

That evening, at the end of the service, I called Ishan and laid my hands on him to ordain him for the temple. As I spoke the words — I don’t remember what exactly I said, the words were just there, like with a marriage — I saw Anshen’s hands on him as well, and he stood up gifted.

We embraced like brother and sister.

Three more days moving goods to storerooms in the fort, and a substantial part of Miham’s food and fodder stores to camel packs, and we were away into the grassy plains. The road down the cliff was exactly one elephant wide, with hairpin bends that they negotiated step after careful step. We weren’t taking all the elephants, and would probably send those we did take back from the end of the river because elephants need water every day, and a lot of it, unlike camels.

The grass was dry, yellowish green, and waist-high to most of the people. Thulo spent the travel days practicing with the children: hiding that you’re gifted, which it turned out that they had to teach him, not the other way round.

On the evening of the first whole day in the plain we had a deer for dinner. It looked a little strange, not at all like the deer I was used to, but it did taste like a delicious kind of venison. Zahmati wrinkled her nose at the meat, “you should have given that to me and I’d have stewed it with saffron! It’s not civilised to eat your meat half-raw!” but even Thulo tasted and liked it.

The hunters had seen lions too: about THAT size, Aza and Hemar showed with one arm each because one person’s arms weren’t long enough. “What were they doing?” I asked.

“Sleeping,” Hemar said, “or at least lying about, one lioness saw us coming and woke up all the rest and they went away into the bushes.” Not that there were many bushes: no more than the occasional stunted tree or stand of dry shrubs.

“Still,” I said, “only hunters should leave the group, and not alone. And if anyone gets lost or strays away we should find them at once. If wolves can catch a lamb, I’ll bet lions can catch a child.”

A few days later we camped on the bank of the river — less wide and a bit deeper here than just below the cliff — and we saw yet another kind of strange deer: brown-dappled yellow, with long legs and enormously long necks. “That’s a challenge to catch!” Mazao said, “shall we swim across?” “The current is too strong!” “That’ll carry us south and that’s where we’re going, isn’t it!” But even he had to admit that they’d never get the meat to the other side in time to cook it before it spoiled, even if they managed to catch one of those beasts.

On the fifth day we were now so far away from Ghilas that we couldn’t see the people there any more on our nightly sweep. On the seventh day we saw people south of us. That must be the village that was on the map, But there didn’t seem to be enough people for a village: no more than fifteen people, a dozen of them gifted. Some were very gifted indeed but very young, perhaps still children; one seemed to be a grown woman.

As we got closer to the village we saw that the fields were deserted, ditches with crumbled sides, fields covered in weeds. There was a well with water in it — in fact it stood as high as the river water — but when someone tried to pull up the bucket it stuck behind something that turned out to be an arm, and with some difficulty we pulled up an entire body from the well, a girl in her teens, belly slashed upen.

The first house of the village had writing on its wall: HALLA ASTIN ARCHAN COLLECTS TAXES. READ AND OBEY.

I’d heard of that Halla. It didn’t bode well.

In the village itself most of the houses had been partly demolished, and in the middle there were the remains of a huge pyre where dead bodies had been burnt. Most of the village, by the pile of bones. One house was whole, painted, though in bad repair, and that was where the people were.

Perhaps that woman was Halla. “I’ll go and talk,” I said, and took Thulo and an escort of Khali, Bhalik and two soldiers, and Maha who either wouldn’t leave Thulo or couldn’t curb her curiosity, and Thulo’s errand-boy who had the name Mík now.

An elderly dark woman came out of the house, leaning on a cane. When I came closer I saw that she was younger than I’d thought because of the cane and her bent back, but still about fifty. “Halla?” I asked.

She spat on the ground. “Do I look like that? Caille, formerly Somaya. What do you want?”

“We saw that there were people here and wondered if you needed help.” Close enough to the truth, anyway.

She looked sharply at me. “You’re one of the Nameless, right?” She shook her stick at me and called behind her into the house. “Arash!” A large man in what looked like threadbare uniform came out, carrying a sword the size of mine but in much worse state, and took up position behind her.

“Anshen, yes,” I said. “What happened here?”

“What happened! Halla happened, that’s what. Can’t you see?”

“Yes.” So this wasn’t Halla. “Can we do anything for you?”

She laughed. “And get all the glory of taking my catch to the emperor? After all the trouble I had salvaging them?”

So that was her game. “Seize them,” I told the soldiers, and sent Mík back to the camp for reinforcements, though they probably wouldn’t be needed. And indeed, before he was back Khali and a soldier were holding Caille, and Bhalik was holding the man all by himself.

“You’re not going to have my glory! I was three years collecting this booty! The emperor will cover me with thanks and glory!”

“And what will the emperor do with them, then?” I asked.

“Train them as officers for his glorious army, of course,” she said.

I motioned to the soldiers to take them away and went into the house. There were indeed a dozen gifted children there, Velihan, Valdyan and one from the Far East, the youngest a girl of about six, the oldest a Valdyan boy of about twelve called Leshan. “Where do you come from?” I asked.

“Ildis,” he said, “my father is a day labourer there.”

“And his mother is a night labourer,” another boy said.

“Yours just so!” Leshan retorted.

We took them back to the camp and Zahmati gave them food without being asked, because it was clear that they were famished. It turned out that Halla was not the only one who sacked villages: they’d run into one Orian earlier and barely escaped with their hides. “It was horrible!” Leshan said, “they killed all the grownups and they left the children, and Mother Caille said we couldn’t take them because they weren’t gifted, and they’ll all die now!”

“Hm.” I said, “how far away is it?”

“Eight days walking,” Leshan said, “that way,” and he pointed roughly east.

The hunters looked at each other, and Mazao laid his forehead against Leshan’s and screwed up his eyes. “I think I know where it is now,” he said. “And we can go a lot faster, we don’t have little kids with us.” There was a but more back-and-forth between them. “Better that we all go, we don’t know how many we’ll have to carry on the way back. And better that we go now, so we can run at night, we’ll go faster still.” They stocked up on food and water-bags as night was falling.

“We’ll wait for you at Merom,” I said, “but if you’re not back in, say, fifteen days, we’ll move on.”

Caille and Arash were in the lockup now, and two wounded soldiers — I still didn’t know whose — who had been in the house with the children were in the hospital.

The next morning, Thulo wanted Caille to at least see the service, but she wouldn’t cross the temple entrance. “Well, she’ll have to be outside then, with the elephants,” I said. “The difference is that the elephants want in, but they’re not allowed.” She stood there, guarded by two soldiers, obviously in great distress, too afraid to fume though I could see that she was also angry.

“Let her get used to it,” Thulo said.

Between cursing the Nameless and raving about the emperor, Caille actually told us lots of useful things. All the masters with their own orders were young, still in their teens; the grand masters were in Ashas with the emperor. Sidhan was the one settled in Merom. All of them called themselves ‘astin Archan’. Well! I could call myself ‘astin Anshen’, I suppose!

Just as we saw the city on the horizon, another caravan caught up with us. Somewhat smaller, looking neater, not as sprawling. The master came to visit us, a middle-aged woman with long pulled-back henna-red hair, called Ziba. They were from Ravindar on the east coast. “We seem to have the same problem,” she told Pesar (and me, and the other people Pesar had asked to be present). “We can’t pass Merom with the little masters there. And there seem to be difficulties further on. What do you recommend, try to push through, which we don’t have nearly enough soldiers for but you seem to have more, or turn and take our trade elsewhere?”

“I’d recommend going north,” I said, “there’s famine in the south, we have other business than trade in Ashas but I don’t think there’s much to earn there.”

“I was afraid of that,” she said. “But” — brightening — “perhaps, now we’re both here, we can trade with each other?”

We did still have some trade goods with us, so it seemed a good idea. And if these people were going north or west, anyone from our lot who had second thoughts could join them.

The other caravan’s priest came to talk to me. “Excuse me,” he said, “I am Nima, priest of Ansen.” (He really did say Ansen! It must be how they pronoune it in their country, because he surely looked as if he was of Anshen.) “Would you consider letting me serve with you in your temple this evening?”

“Oh yes,” I said, “that would be a very good thing.”

“I’m mostly the priest for the soldiers, to care for their spirits after they have fought.”

“Well, yes, I do that too,” I said, “but I’m also a soldier myself. Most of the priests of Anshen in my country are.” Yes, even Athal, who was as much a priest of Anshen as I’d ever seen. Thulo wasn’t a soldier, though he could fight, but then he wasn’t from my country, at least not the one I’d grown up in.

In the service there were many people from the other caravan as well, Nima held a speech in the middle, which I didn’t understand a word of — should perhaps get someone to translate if it happens again — but I did get the intention: peace between our peoples under the protection of Anshen. I was all in favour of that!

Afterwards we invited the guests to eat with us, and then it turned out that they didn’t eat meat or drink wine. Zahmati grumbled a little about that but produced pasties filled with really fresh goat cheese; I didn’t get any, because there weren’t enough to go round, but they looked delicious.

At dinner I talked some more with Nima. They had seen the works of the ‘little masters’ too — refugees everywhere, sacked villages with the dead bodies just lying around. “That’s not civilised! Everybody knows that women should be buried in the womb of the earth, and men laid in a high place to let the air claim them. Not left as prey for the beasts!” For such a mild man, he was very agitated. “Those things belong to the one whose name we don’t say. Every one for themself, nobody for each other.”

“I’ve learned to say his name,” I said, “but no, we don’t either, as a rule.”

“We knew what was happening eight years ago and kept diligent watch. They’re not taking children from our country. From Valdyas, Velihas, the Northern Lands,” (I realised that he meant the East, which must be north of their country) “all other countries in the world, but not from Ravindar.”

We talked a lot about power, how to get anea out of the world. “It’s in every part of the world, in every blade of grass, every gust of wind,” he said, and showed us, and suddenly Thulo got it and could draw on the world’s power himself. I’d never been able to teach him that because it comes naturally to me, like breathing; it needed someone from a completely different nation to do that. Maha complimented him about it later, but when he asked why she didn’t do it she said “I don’t have birthright here” and kept silent about the matter afterwards.

We were all camped at the lakeside outside Merom now, the two caravans side by side with a space like a public square between them. I’d already seen people from both caravans talking with each other. The city ignored us. There were several places where smoke rose up, enough to make me think that buildings were burning. Perhaps they were just plain too busy to bother with us.

The armies were fraternizing too: they had a training battle, wielding sticks for weapons, but using ordinary tactics as if they were facing a real enemy. Many people were watching, including Caille, with her ubiquitous guard. Thulo was talking to her, and after I’d seen our army “defeated” in an ingenious pincer movement by the much smaller Ravindar army, I went over to them. It appeared that Caille had thought the battle was real, and protested that we ought to save our soldiers to take on Merom! It confused her no end. When I arrived Thulo had just succeeded in explaining that it was just training.

“I lost most of my escort in Pecham!” Caille was saying, “you don’t want to be in Pecham. That’s where half my catch was pinched by some ship’s captain, too.” I didn’t tell her, of course, who that ship’s captain had been, because I was practically sure that she was talking about the Blue Dolphin’s cargo.

As we walked back to our tent, someone –I think Maha– said “I wish the hunters were back,” and then she saw that they were back. Kisin was carrying a baby, Mazao a small boy, and Guruning, the tallest, a bigger boy. “These are all who were still alive,” they said.

Thulo immediately sent Mík to find a woman who had a baby and more than enough milk. He came back soon enough, grinning, a woman with him whose shirt was wet with milk. She handed her own plump baby to one of the Plains girls without any ceremony and took the other child in her arm. “Goodness! I’ve never seen such a scrawny mite!” she said, and bared her breast, but the baby was too overwrought to drink. Thulo managed to quiet it down enough with his mind.

One of the rescued boys had dysentery — probably eaten or drunk the wrong thing — and Maha and Thulo spent the whole night cleaning his insides. In the morning, children came to help: Leshan and his sister who had already asked about helping in the hospital, and some of the children from Zameshtan. The ones who had helped clean the village recognised something, “it’s like sweeping huts, only inside someone’s body!”

In the morning they slept, and then stayed in bed for some time while not sleeping, all the time with Mík as doorkeeper. When they emerged I was just coming back from the lake, where I’d swum in delightfully warm and clear water. “I think you two need a bath, too!” I said. “But mind the elephants in the water.”

“Can elephants swim, then?” Thulo asked. “Aren’t they too heavy?” But I’d seen all three elephants floating and playing in the lake, blowing water at each other and at the children who were trying to wash them.

I rounded up an escort to visit the other caravan. It had a very different feel from ours: more ordered, very peaceful, no whole families and indeed no children at all, not even as goatherds or messengers. I still don’t know if these people have slaves, but I’d be surprised if they did. They did have women soldiers, which I hadn’t seen in any army that wasn’t Valdyan until now. (I don’t know about Velihas, they probably do, but I haven’t seen a Velihan army yet.)

I heard more about the ‘little masters’ in the city: very young people still, grown up without parents and with the expectation that they could do whatever they wanted. “It’s not good for someone to grow up without a mother!” Nima said, “it’s your mother who teaches you compassion!”

That made me laugh. “My father taught me that,” I said, “my mother taught me persistence and stubbornness!” But yes, I could imagine that someone who had grown up in the Resurgence without anyone to keep them in check would abuse their power like that.

“Would you stay for our evening service?” Nima asked, and of course I would, but I had to call Thulo to take over the evening service in our camp because we’d left all our other priests to serve in other places. We must really train some more people!

The service was much like the whole caravan, very quiet and with much more structure than I was used to. I liked it on the whole, but I think that so much restraint all the time would drive me batty after a while!

The smoke from the fire and the incense rose up, and we watched it make its way to heaven and join with another column of smoke: the one from the temple of our own caravan, Thulo’s service. Nima said some words that I understood as “Anshen is with all of us” — clearly that was exactly what was happening.

Later, back at our own cooking-fire, we saw smoke above the city again: not single fires this time, but a cloud like a pan-lid. “I don’t know what they’re doing,” Khali said, “they’re not drunk, but they must be smoking something very strange!”

“Perhaps they’re easier to bowl over if they’re woozy from brus,” I said. “I’ve got a couple of pounds of that in my pack, come to think of it.”

“You might make them a present of it,” Khali said, “come as an honoured guest!” But somehow that didn’t seem likely…