Spirit on fire

More travel in which “nothing” happens. With extra elephants.

Maha and Thulo were in the tent together for a long time, and they had such an air of “we’re itnimate, don’t disturb” about them — not strictly a seal, just a feeling, but strong enough– that nobody went in, even when it started to rain. Only Nán peeked in and drew back in disgust, “They’re kissing! And more than that!”

“They’re allowed to do that,” I said.

“But it’s raining!”

“Then go sit under an elephant!”

“Then I’ll get wet too because she’ll piss on me! He, I think, he’s got a spout to piss with.”

Chelian and I did the services — I took both the first and the third as I couldn’t rouse Thulo. After a while the rain stopped, and Maha and Thulo finally came out, Maha looking much better, and we all sat around the fire to eat goat meat wrapped in flatbread. As we were licking our fingers Samada was suddenly next to us with a large book, “you wanted to learn, didn’t you?”

“You’ve found your books!:” I exclaimed. And yes, the chest had been found, in the baggage train with the rest of her dowry. She sat between me and Thulo, with Maha leaning on Thulo’s shoulder and Aftabi on mine, and all the others crowding in to see if they could learn something too.

It was a book about the Game of Four Divisions, which by the charts and illustrations was like Kings and Queens but with more intricate rules. The first chapter was mostly numbers: not only the value of each piece, but the value of combinations and how a player could calculate the various ways to win. She started very slowly, and because most of the letters were at least similar to the Iss-Peranian letters I already knew I could manage to read along and try to recognise words. In the first page I learned all the numbers from one to twenty-four — not, like in trade Iss-Peranian, repeating again after ten, but with a different word for each number until twenty.

It turned out that none of the hunting teenagers had ever learned to read.

“There are no letters to write Khas with!” the Khas said.

“We used to have letters but Ishey is such a strong language that it burnt through all paper, all leather, all wood!” the Ishey said.

“Stone, too?” I asked, but my irony was wasted because Mazao nodded and said “Yes, definitely.”

“We don’t write things down because then we wouldn’t remember,” the Plains people said.

Samada looked so incredulous at that — “a person can’t keep everything in her head!” — that one of the girls asked her to read and she’d listen and remember. “Ten pages!” “No, twenty pages!” her sister said.

So that was what Samada did, first reading at the same slow pace but gradually faster and more like singing, or reciting prayers. The Plains girls stood by the fire, holding hands, their eyes fixed on the flames, and when Samada stopped they recited everything right back. Almost at the end Samada heard a mistake, “you said ‘no’ and it’s ‘ne’!” but the Plains boy said that she must have made the mistake herself, because he’d heard ‘no’ too. But they still didn’t know what it meant — which made it even more impressive for me, to remember sometihng if you can’t use the meaning to guide you.

After Samada had gone, I collected everybody gifted and able-bodied — I didn’t want Bhalik to strain himself yet — to have a thorough look around together, the way I’d learned in the Order house in Solay. Thulo and Chelian and I, Maha and Zahmati, the children, about half the hunters, the younger prince, the young goatherd Sohrab who had attached himself to me because he wanted to become a priest of Anshen and who I’d been training as an acolyte, and a small handful of gifted soldiers: quite a large company, and once everybody got the hang of it we could go quite far.

We could still see Tanim and its villages north of the forest; to the south, there was a large stretch of land without any human habitation, but there was a herd of elephants — five thousand or more! “Oh, that’s a small herd,” the prince said, “a really large herd is tens of thousands!” Our own elephants were restless, either they could smell them or sense them with their minds, or perhaps both.

Beyond, on the higher ground, there were villages again. “That’s Zameshtan,” the prince said.

I recognised that name! “One of their their princesses married our king’s brother,” I said.

“Didn’t she marry the king of Albetire? I remember they stayed at our house on the way, and i thought she was so pretty! She was just a little girl then, of course, no breasts at all!” But i could tell him that the princess had been widowed even before she was properly grown up, and married Prince Aidan and had a baby, though she was still very young.

I tried to warn the elephant drivers of the herd, but I didn’t know any language they understood, so I had to ask the prince to tell them.

Maha came to ask me about maiden-herbs– would she have to take more now that she was really making love, or would it be enough? I wasn’t sure, because I was only taking the herbs so I wouldn’t bleed on the journey, like Maha had been doing until now. “I think if you don’t bleed you won’t get pregnant,” I said, “but if you do after all, we can deal with that, too!”

“No, I don’t want that!” Maha said, alarmed. “If I have a baby I’ll have it!”

“That’s what I meant by ‘we can deal with that’, I said. Doing away with an unborn baby had never crossed my mind at all.

In the morning I asked Khali to help me get used to my new sword. We did all the basic exercises, but because I had experience with ordinary swords already, at great speed. “You have to build up strength with it,” he said, and yes, though it was the right size for me I’d have to train my muscles to the greater length and weight. Aftabi joined our exercises after a while, and Khali took us on both at once, with a short sword in each hand, showing us how to make two opponents get into one another’s way.

“We’ll do that in the evening, too, and all those children can make a light to fight by,” he said. “To get you used to shifting lights.”

We broke up late and paused after a few hours to let the herd of elephants pass. An endless stream of huge grey bodies, the smallest about the size of a cart-horse and the largest higher in the shoulders than the ones we’d been riding. “But what do they eat?” I asked at some point, and the prince pointed at the forest without a word.

When the elephants were gone, the forest was ruined. So was the ground we had to cross, ankle-deep mud for the camels –does a camel have ankles?– and even our elephants were having trouble. We went on rather late, when it was already dark, because there was no suitable camp-site until the last of the caravan had crossed the mess.

There were only two services, because many people were busy making camp after the delay. I took Maha aside to tell her that she could take all the anea from the world that she needed, but there was something impeding it that I hadn’t anticipated: so many people in Velihas were gifted that there might actually be a shortage of anea if the royal family, with the proper birthright, didn’t regulate it. Other people might use it when they needed it for anything, but if you’re a king or a queen or a prince or a princess your calling is to make it available for those others. The other side of that seemed to be that the birthright gave you a copious amount of power of your own, but Maha was using that up with her doctoring. “You Valdyans and Iss-Peranians and Síthi don’t have that problem,” she said, “there are so few of you that there’s enough to go round anyway!”

But at least here there was plenty of anea to go round: the elephants had left lots and lots of it. It had a wild animal flavour, but it was spirit, and it was easy to rake in and use. And it wasn’t only raw stuff like all the elephant droppings (which people had also been collecting buckets and bags of) but there was a sort of low wall, like a weir, as if to keep people from going north. We didn’t know what to make of that, but once we’d noticed it it was very easy to see.

It’s clear that elephants have spirit, would they also have gods? We all thought they’d probably have something like gods, but nobody agreed on what they’d look like: like an elephant? Like other animals? Like nothing we could imagine at all?

The next morning, in the temple, I had a strong feeling of being protected: it wasn’t of Anshen but definitely benign. Many people could feel it, gifted or almost gifted, and even some with no gifts at all. It made children quiet and attentive, and everybody left more cheerful than on other days. Whether that was an effect of the elephants’ weir or anything else I couldn’t determine.

That day Maha and Thulo travelled in the howdah with the sick. Bhalik was on a camel, still shaky but stubborn, but there was a woman with a burnt arm to keep the trampled man company. I rode a camel too, in order to see the country, and the other howdah was occupied by Zahmati and Samada and all the children. I heard voices coming from it from time to time, saying things that made it clear that all four children wanted Samada to know that no, they weren’t her slaves any more, and if she wanted something she should ask it!

The forest was more open now, very high skinny trees with all the leaves at the top, and not much undergrowth at all. We passed some small dark people climbing the trees and coming back with a net full of fruits or nuts, looking hard and woody, the size of my two fists together. They waved at us and called in a language I didn’t understand, but it sounded like a greeting so I greeted them back.

The moment we left the forest we were in cultivated land, irrigated by wooden contraptions in the river. There were large fields where something grew that looked most like grass or grain, but it was standing in an inch or so of water. How could any grain grow like that and not rot away?

There was an excited buzz in the whole caravan about Zameshtan, where we’d be in two or three days. The city (I still don’t know if Zameshtan is the name of the city or of the kingdom or both) is large, the first place after Albetire with a really big market, all sorts of possibilities for trade. I wondered what temples they’d have, a bit worried whether the Resurrection would have taken those over as well — I didn’t think we could rid a whole city of the Resurrection, a palace had been hard enough!

There were some people in the first evening service who looked very much like those who were climbing the trees. One man –he seemed to be their leader– beckoned me to follow and I did, taking Thulo along. Maha came with Thulo, and the hunters trailed behind. It was about half an hour to the village –before we could be back Cheliân would have to start on his second service, but there was nothing to be done about that.

In the middle of the village a teenaged boy was sitting by a fire. He was oblivious of everything except the flames. In fact when we got closer and I reached out with my mind, because it was clear that this was what they’d brought me back here for, I saw that he was feeding the flames with his anea. On the other side of the fire there was a burnt hut — not very recent, but they hadn’t torn it down yet either.

I went up to the boy — he didn’t take any notice of me — and put a seal over him to part him from the fire. The fire promptly went down a bit, and the boy started to claw at the seal as if he couldn’t breathe, though air would get through it unimpeded. That wasn’t the right way, then. I took it away and started to smooth his ruffled anie, like brushing a dog, and that did calm him down a bit, though there were still little flames springing from his hands and the fire flared up as high as before. I could feel Thulo and Maha at my side, following what I did and supporting me with their spirit, and the teenage hunters had made a circle round us and the fire.

I didn’t dare call on Anshen yet, because I wasn’t sure what that would do to the fire, and I didn’t dare do anything to the fire itself because I didn’t know what it would do to the boy, but at one moment I could see another figure in the circle and breathed silent thanks.

When the boy was as calm as I could make him I went deeper into his mind. Under the tangles there was a strong layer of it’s not my fault, really it isn’t, having to do with the burned-out hut, and I can’t help that we have no priest, is it a crime to want to talk with the gods?. Under that there was guilt, the realisation that even if it wasn’t his fault he had done it, he’d set the hut on fire and people he loved had been killed. The deepest I dared go showed his early life, exulting in what he could do, amazing his friends with the fire he could make with his hands.

Gods, what a mess. It didn’t help that there wasn’t anyone among us who could speak or understand his language.

“Let’s take him to the temple,” Thulo said, and Maha, at the same time, “shall we sing?”

We had to decide what exactly to sing– people had died, but Naigha didn’t seem to be in order. Anshen, surely; but also Timoine because in some ways the boy was still a child. We sang the Velihan versions of the invocations, because there was more spirit in those that we hoped the boy would be able to feel. And he did: by the time we were back in the temple he was trying to sing along in a low breaking voice.

Most of the village had followed us back. Sohrab the acolyte turned out to be able to talk with these people, “sort of, they’re farmers” and from there on it was much easier.

They really didn’t have a priest at all, and that was outrageous because according to Sohrab the king should have sent one, “the king has three tasks, collect taxes, send soldiers around and make sure every village has a priest!” But everybody who could have become a priest had been taken south. We must really speak to the king when we reach Zameshtan! I only hope and pray that the king isn’t in the power of the Resurrection, or worse, in cahoots with them.

In the temple, the boy calmed down even more, sat down on the ground, and eventually fell asleep. And as I stood there looking at him and trying to decide what to do next, my stomach growled. A village woman laughed and told me to wait, and not long afterwards –they must have run!– men came carrying jugs, women dishes, and we all got enormous amounts of food, rice (that must have been the mystery grain, I realised) with vegetables and boiled eggs in it, and roast somethings on top. “Those are big marmots!” one of the Ishey said, some kind of rodent the size of a rabbit but plumper.

Sohrab pulled at my sleeve. “The headman” –that was the man who had asked me to come– “wants you to give them a priest. I told him that takes a night.” I think I looked completely blank, because he went on “Like you made the queen into a priestess in a night!”

But there was a problem: anyone who had what it took to become a priest, not only dedication but also, and especially in this case, gifts, had been taken south. “The only person I have who could become a priest for this village is you!” I told Sohrab, and he became a couple of shades greyer.

“I did want to stay with you and learn,” he said, “but I think you’re right. I’ll do it.”

We went to the village in a much larger procession, except that Maha and Thulo stayed behind in the temple to watch the boy. People were carrying stones from the temple wall to make a village temple from, so many that the temple wall was only half its former height.

I’d briefly thought the boy himself would make a good priest after some sorting-out, but the headman was against that, he’d killed his mother and sisters, he couldn’t be the priest, not in this village. That it had been an accident –for I’d mostly convinced him of that– didn’t make a difference. And I could agree with that: nobody in his own village would ever trust him again. I may even have a new acolyte to take Sohrab’s place.

Before I could start making a temple I found that nost of the work had already been done: the fire had a low eight-sided wall around it and building a larger octagon with an entrance was going on. Temples are like sourdough: once you’ve got one you can make as many more as you need.

I took Sohrab to the fire and started to go through all the prayers with him: it was harder than with the queen of Tanim, because he couldn’t read and had to know everything by heart, but on the other hand he had a very good memory — there might be something in what the Plains people said about writing — and he knew most things already.

It did take the whole night. At last, at sunrise, I was confident I could leave him to fend for himself. “Well done!” I said. “Hey, the village is full of pretty girls, you’d do well to choose one to marry.”

“Can I?” he asked, “being a priest?”

“You’re not in the Order,” I said, “I’ve sworn not to marry, but you’ve only sworn to serve Anshen, and if you marry and have a child you can teach them to be priest after you. If they can, of course.”

Then I embraced him and went back to the caravan, just in time for the morning service. I’d have to sleep on the back of an elephant again, I thought, but Pesar came up to me after the service to ask if I wanted to have a rest day after all the exertions, or to travel to Zameshtan at once.

A rest day was a really good idea. I slept for a few hours in the tent, while Maha and Thulo went to the bath-tent on Samada’s invitation, and when I woke up at mid-day I remembered that the invitation had vaguely been for me as well so I went too, taking Zahmati and the children.

“Why do I need to wash?” Khubkhub asked. “I’ll just get dirty again!”

“Because you’ve got elephant dung behind your ears,” Nán said.

“You need to wash because I want everybody in my care to be clean,” I said.

“We’re not your slaves! And you’re not my mother! I don’t even have a mother!” He went from angry to weepy in one breath. “Never knew my mother, I don’t even have a real name!”

“What would be a real name?” I asked.

“I don’t know! I didn’t have a mother to give me one! Khubkhub isn’t a name, it’s just what I’m called, it means ‘come here! come here!'”

“And what does Nán mean?” I asked.

“It means ‘scrub’,” the girl said.

“Shall we give you real names? In the temple? I’ll think up a service for it.” I’d been doing so many strange blessings that I could probably change the name-giving for babies enough to work on grown children.

They thought that a really good idea — to get a name in the temple! “But I won’t give you Valdyan names,” I said, “because the bad people who take children away to the south give themselves Valdyan names. Perhaps you need Velihan names. Maha will know some that fit you.”

“Yes!” Nán said. “Velihan names! Those taste so nice when you say them!”

With that promise, Khubkhub let himself be scrubbed, even behind the ears. Zahmati and I washed each other’s backs and lay in the warm water and forgot all our cares, at least I did for a while, I don’t know if Zahmati can. I thought of the strange ways of worshipping Anshen that I’d left in my wake– I couldn’t give every village a priest, but I could at least teach people about the good gods. Who didn’t seem to mind at all how they were served, as long as they knew the people and the people knew them.

When we got out of the bath Thulo called me, we need you to give us permission to teach Ababe. That was Pesar’s second wife, the gifted one. Why should they need my permission– well, because I was Thulo’s master and had promised to look after Maha, I supposed. But it turned out to be somewhat different: Ababe had been trained as a dandar by her aunt from the age of twelve, when her gifts showed, to eighteen, when she married Pesar. And because of that she couldn’t, or at least wasn’t allowed to, be taught by a man; and because she wasn’t a dandar any more it would be out of order for her to use her healing gifts, which she certainly had. In fact Thulo and Maha had asked her to help with their patients because they’d also seen that.

“I’ve never done love potions and things!” she assured me. “Only women’s ailments and fever and wounds. But could you convice my lord husband that it’s all right for me to do doctor’s work together with the princess, and with your holy apprentice?”

“I don’t see anything against it,” I said. The first wife beamed, but the man who had been standing behind them –and who I knew was the doctor, the woman I’d first thought was the doctor was their apothecary– turned and stalked away.

“Don’t mind him,” the first wife said, “it would be so good for Ababe, and for all of us. It’s no good to throw away someone’s talents just because they can’t be dandar any more. Here –in this caravan– things aren’t any more as they’ve always been anyway. Thanks to you, holiness.”

They had food and drink brought while we waited for Pesar, who was in a trade meeting to prepare for Zameshtan. Maha and Thulo disappeared, I rather thought to use the tent while nobody else needed to be in there. The children ran around us with some of the children of the household, Khubkhub almost as dirty as he’d been before the bath and Mík and the girls not much cleaner, but at least they had been clean.

When Pesar appeared he was limping badly, “Is it your foot again?” the first wife asked. “Ababe can help you with that, with Her Holiness’ blessing.”

Pesar looked dubious, but the first wife went on, “Princess Maha has offered to teach her Velihan doctoring,” and whispered in her little slave-boy’s ear. He grinned and ran away, and a while later he came back with Maha and Thulo. The three of them went to work on Pesar’s leg, and it was clear that Ababe knew most about the condition –it was gout, he was in his forties and far too fond of a good life– and Maha knew a couple of things she didn’t know. I couldn’t follow most of what they were doing, but it took a lot of anea so I drew from the earth what I could –I could still reach the elephants’ leavings from here– and passed it on to them.

“That helped!” Pesar said, relieved. “Now where’s that doctor? I’ll tell him he’s been wrong all this time!” But the doctor was gone, and nobody could find him anywhere.