I’m still wondering whether we didn’t harass a completely innocent hapless NPC, but there must be something behind it.
So we suddenly had six kids with us… Fikmet, Tassel (Ailin tells me it’s “Tasgal”, but I don’t hear it that way), Mar, Makhane, Bayat and Ram. It was still quite early in the morning, and we decided to go down the gorge, to the plains where there were big, edible animals.
I know I often sound a bit greedy, but then, I’m a big, beefy fellow. I can do without food, have done without food, often, but the last time we’d had something real to eat was in the fort, and I was looking forward to these big, beefy beasts that were edible. Yes, I was. Of course, I was courting disappointment.
So we went down, the gorge took a turn to the south-west, and in under half an hour, long before I had expected it, we were on the plains. An endless amount of rolling hillocks with dry grass and low shrubbery. To the east, there was a steep cliff running north to south. Mar and Makhane told us there was a village to the south, and that’s the direction we took. We passed many other small gorges and gullies, some with water, others without.
It didn’t take long before we saw a small village in the distance. A bunch of tents erected in a semi-circle, some people milling about and some badly kept grain fields to the west. When we came closer, we saw a low, stone building in the entrance to another gorge. Three, four camels were tied to a railing next to a trough. The tents turned out to be painted in all kinds of colours.
We couldn’t get closer, though, because a man was blocking the path. He was a man, but only just, I learned later on. Only I thought he was sixteen, seventeen. He had a hard, pinched face, was quite brawny — but all these Khas are small and a bit muscular. Hard to see the age of any Khas man who’s not gray yet! Later on, Aylin told me his granny had told her he was only twelve.
He asked us where we came from, who we were and what we came to do. Tough questions, but in the end Ailin and I told him we were from Solay, were travelling and had some good stories to tell. That was kind of the bait: we figured that these people probably were dying for some outside news and maybe even more for some new strong stories.
And that was true. The village was small: apart from this man, boy — man, whatever — he was called Khusai — and his uncle Tasgal there were only women and children here.
To our surprise, there was even a gifted Valdyan woman and a Síthi woman. The Síthi woman was the mother of two children.
The youngest children in the village were about four years old, except for one two-year old toddler.
Something was really wrong here, and we couldn’t figure it out, but once we were told, it was obvious: all the men had gone to the war and had left their womanfolk behind. And only Tasgal with the peg-leg had returned from the war, and since they hadn’t had any news from Solay, that must have been a long time ago. He didn’t even know about our witch.
Well, we were shown the stone building, it was the “water house”, where we washed ourselves. Also our kids: they protested a bit, but hey — there was no knowing when we would next find water to wash! At least it was fresh water, not salt! Then we saw the other party… The camel guys from Solay. They were here as well… So much for staying out of their sight. And we still did not trust them. Not at all.
Nothing much seemed to be going on in this place… There was a fire in the middle of the semi-circle of tents, the fire was poked up a bit, water was heated in a kettle and some leaves thrown in. Time for a nice cup of tea!
Even though it was early in the afternoon, nobody went out to work — it really frightened me somehow. Everyone, more than a dozen women and children, the two men and the camel party, sat down around the fire and waited for our stories…
I had some good ones to tell, and Ailin kept up her side as well, and then we told them about the sorcerer we’d killed and his mother who’d chosen death. That’s when the looks started. Darting looks from one person to another, between Khusai and his uncle, Khusai and his granny…
“Did you kill the sorcerer?”, asked the granny of Ailin, and she said “Yes”, of course.
“That’s not allowed! Women cannot kill men!”
Obviously they can, and do, and we instanced our great witch, Raith. That led to some more silence. As I said, they had not heard about Her.
I broke the silence, asking Khusai about the village. He was pretty sombre about it all. With no men, they would soon be conquered by another village and he wouldn’t be village head anymore, only there didn’t seem to be any villages with men around, however far you’d walk. For the rest, he seemed to get younger and younger by the hour, less and less self-assured. He was angling for our kids to stay, become men to the village’s women, but they didn’t seem willing to me. I was getting really antsy now. There were some customs here that seemed really strange to me, especially when I figured out that actually all the women in this village were Khusai’s until they got conquered by other Khas…
Ailin asked him whether it would be good if some of the women were to bear children made by, well, foreigners, like me. He didn’t like that idea at all, and his granny said that we’d have to fight for that right. That made me think…
Really, this village was dying, women and children and all. They lived in tents, but the tents didn’t look like they were moved often, if ever. Creepers and green stuff were going up the tent walls. What’s the use of tents if you don’t travel?
We asked Khusai and his uncle — Tasgal, but also Mina, the granny, whether they wouldn’t like to come to the big city with us. The Valdyan and Síthi women here did like the idea — but especially the Valdyan woman was a bit simple, really. Not someone the others listened to a lot. But she was gifted, as were other women here. But that was safe, apparently, with no sorcerer in the neighbourhood.
And then the camel people — they were too silent to make me feel comfortable with them. Something scrabbled at the back of my mind. I got even antsier…
In the end, when Ailin had gone with granny to talk, I felt that something had to happen.
I made it happen. This was not smart of me.
Several of the women and girls had been looking at me… Making eyes at me. Refilling my tea-bowl. Brushing the slips of their robes against my cheek. Making clear that, yes, this really was a village full of women and no men apart from the boy Khusai, who, as I said, was looking younger all the time, and his mauled and mangled uncle.
I decided that maybe I should create a cause to make Khusai challenge me. I was already thinking that maybe I could bring all of these people to Solay, to the princess. I was also — not thinking, wrong word, don’t know the right word — well, having tramped across Solay alongside Ailin who feels she’s my sister by now, but who is real pretty, and being ugly old me who’s completely unused to being ogled at by almost all women around (not granny nor Ailin, but everything female my age or older did ogle me), I think I didn’t think too deeply. Still, making Khusai challenge me and then taking charge of the village served as an excuse.
Great Gods, I was stupid!
I returned the glance of the prettiest of the Khas girls. Khas aren’t that comely, but then, neither am I. They don’t compare to the Síthi girls, but then, the average boar is prettier than me. Besides, I’ve am through with S´thi girls, I swear. She looked back… Batted her eyelashes.
Oh well, I went over to her, asked for more tea and before the bowl was empty I had my hands under her shirt… Lots of layers of cloth, and she was pretty greasy underneath, but under the grease, the flesh was firm and she giggled. I liked that. She also whispered something to me. Not sure what it was, but I liked that, too.
It was Khas of course, but she had a really nice, clear voice, not giggly, not husky, but clear and firm. I looked around me and — damn it! — Khusai was gone. He hadn’t seen me flout his authority!
Then the girl, she told me she was called Thamsin, she tried to make me stand up, and when that succeeded, took me to a tent. I’ve seen sailors that eager after a long journey, but never a peasant girl. From touching her tits under her jacket to dragging me to her bed — half an hour, at most!
By then, I was no longer thinking with my brains. Gods, I was stupid, so enormously stupid!
When we got into the tent, she made a weird noise, said a weird word. I kissed the nape of her neck. She got a bit worried, and said something I didn’t understand, so I kissed the tips of her fingers.
There was a screen made out of felt at the other end of the tent, and since she glanced that way, I picked her up and took her there. Thamsin doesn’t weigh anything, really, most of the weight was her clothes, and she isn’t that big either. But since I’d felt her tits, I knew she was old enough, and she was eager — that’s all I could think about. Damn Kheti and her hidden husband! I’d gone without properly making love since — damn — since Il Ayande and Meghina… I wonder whether Meghina is pregnant, actually.
But Thamsin only got more and more fidgety. I thought it was because here vest and shirt and skirt were bothering her, but she stopped me undressing her.
She pointed to the floor…
A huge snake was slithering towards me! It was longer than me, it was thicker than my thigh and it had a huge head, mouth wide open and tongue flickering.
I felt like I turned into stone, or ice or something.
“You say welcome, you say after me!” Thamsin whispered, urgently.
I did… I still don’t know what I said, and I need prompting every time to say it.
But the snake closed its mouth, bobbed its horrible head and moved out of our way.
“That was saying, hello, good bye, welcome, good folk.” — at least, that’s what I think Thamsin said. I might be coloring it a bit with my extensive knowledge of trade pidgin…
But I didn’t have time to think, or even to come to my senses. Thamsin dropped her clothes in record time and started to fumble with mine. I had to help her a little — buttons were new to her, but very soon we were lying down on the cushions behind the screen.
Thamsin on her back, waiting for what was about to happen.
Well, women can (and do) complain a lot about what sailors do when they visit foreign ports, but one thing we learn is how to please a woman.
I know I pleased Thamsin. I guess I don’t have to explain how I knew? We ended in a sticky mess, glistening with sweat, cuddling and kissing. Maybe I pleased her a bit too much, even.
At various moments, especially when Thamsin was making a noise, Ailin had been touching me with her mind, making sure all was well, asking me to keep the whole business a bit quieter — but how could I? I mean, I have my pride, and part of my pride is that no girl ever is sorry about having bedded me. (Though they might not be too happy when the ship sails and me on it.)
I was slowly coming to my senses and beginning to feel monumentally stupid when Thamsin started nibbling my earlobes… I think I taught her that. But I realized that what I wanted first and foremost was to wash her. She wasn’t filthy, there was no vermin on her that I could find, but she was definitely on the sweaty side, and greasy too. And of course, bleeding like a stuck pig, poor girl, no longer a virgin. Weird, how much importance they attach to virginity in Il Ayande or Albetire. Nobody cares in Velihas, and I’ve never met a virgin in Essle.
So I got my blanket, Ishey-style, and went to the water-house to get water to wash. Only it was still bright daylight. I felt like it was night, and I was hungry like I had skipped a dozen meals. But then — if this wouldn’t goad Khusai into fighting me, nothing would.
It didn’t! And when I came back, a blushing Ailin told me she’d prayed to Anshen and had been talking to Mina and had come to the conclusion that fighting wasn’t the answer here, but negotiation. Er…
A little sigh from inside the tent made me cut short my conversation with my “little” sister, though…
We washed each other, I started thinking how wonderful a woman with a sense of humour who still didn’t share enough language with me to nag at me was, when my stomach made a huge sound. It’s a huge stomach, of course. Thamsin had tried to wrap her arms around me, and had failed. Not that I’m fat, I’m just one-and-three-quarters size of pretty much everyone I meet.
She started, giggled and asked me whether I needed to eat.
Great Gods, yes! Of course! Big, beefy, edible animals, for preference.
But apparently it wasn’t dinner time yet, but specially for me, they started cooking. Corn, grayish dried meat and some green herbs were dropped in the tea, together with more water, and Ailin had stirring duty, so we couldn’t talk.
Talking to Aylin would have been impossible anyway, since Thamsin gave a very good impression of an old, tough and implacable barnacle. Now I started getting really worried. After all… I might have exaggerated a little later on, during the evening, when talking with Ailin, but, yes, I do know some girls who are very dear to me in Il Ayande, Albetire, Istila, Tlenac and even Essle. And this girl gave me the impression she would never let me go.
Weird, that — I might have been too nice. Khas women regularly let their menfolk go to war for years on end and aren’t too surprised if they never get back. But then, from what Ailin tells me, Khas men’s ideas of what to do with a woman are too limited for words. They seem to make love to women like an oarsman rows a boat: in, out, in, out. More out than in, in fact.
Well, we got food, and I surprised everyone by eating four, five, six, bowls of the thick tea-flavoured stew. Every bowl lovingly filled and handed to me by Thamsin, who after the third seemed to take me kissing her fingers as no more than her due.
By then, it started to get dark. Time for some really tall tales from around the world! Mina especially asked for tales from the sea, and the assembled party, except for Tasgal, the uncle of Khusai, declined the offer of tales of the war.
We did our best, it wasn’t hard to make the tales reach to heaven with Thamsin looking admiringly at me. I’m only seventeen or so, but I’ve been at sea for almost ten years now, I’ve done the Great Eight twice, and I’ve been around.
Then I had to answer a call of nature — there was no beer, no brandy, no wine, only water, but nature was still calling me, and I asked Ailin to sing something. She may not be trained, but she’s got a nice, clear voice that easily reaches to the other side of the camp, even if she’s not scolding someone.
When I came back, she’d gone. It took Thamsin a bit of effort to tell me that Ailin’d gone with Mina to learn how to sing the Khas way. Serla, the Valdyan woman, told me that the Khas sing with their anie as well. That sounded interesting, but it was a woman’s thing, and if I wanted to learn that, I would have to learn from Khusai and his uncle Tasgal. All right… Outside the camp, the village, whatever, I heard swords clanging, and Thamsin told me that Khusai was doing sword-fighting practice with his uncle.
I wasn’t too worried about that, even though I thought it might be a preparation before challenging me, so I went to our kids on the other side of the fire, to teach them some semsin. That got Serla’s attention as well, which, her being simple and besides having lived a long time with the Khas, led to me telling everyone about how Anshen and the Nameless are different in Valdyas, and that Anshen is the God who asks people to help and share and care, and the Nameless is the one who teaches people to lie and be selfish. A bit simplified, but then, Serla is a bit simple and she was the one translating to the Khas. Making seals amazed them, and we had great fun, actually.
Thamsin was still climbing on my lap, hanging on my back, putting her head next to mine all the time — all the little ways a girl makes clear that this man is hers, causing dirty looks from all the thirty-something matrons — except when Ailin came back to take us to our sleeping place. Ailin took one look at Thamsin and asked me “She was a virgin, right? She seems to have trouble walking…” and I answered, “Yes, she was a virgin… But unstoppable. Do you have the greasy salve? It might help her.” After which they went to the washing place, where our kids were already, washing themselves.
It was really late, but I got into a talk with Mina, too, before the girls returned. She told me about another tent, also with a snake — every tent has a guardian snake, and the roof of the water-house was full of owls, and that snake was pissed off because its humans had gone away, without taking leave.
I got intrigued by that and resolved to look into it in the morning. First I had to spend a night with Thamsin behind the screen, with all the kids and Ailin in our tent, listening in. I had gotten some oil from the Síthi merchant from the camel party, and used that to shave myself and then gave Thamsin a thorough rubbing down.
She blissed out without me having to make her even more sore, but then came back with, and I admit I was pleased, even though I still felt I was being stupid about this all, asking me whether she should give me a good rub down…
Ailin was giggling like an idiot all the time the other side of the screen! Stupid sisters!
The next morning we were up and washing ourselves at daybreak, but the village was deserted. Everyone was still sleeping! I hadn’t been able to wake Thamsin, but then, she had had a tough afternoon, evening and night full of exercise that was new to her. Only Bahr, the Khas boy from the camel party, was up, he was feeding the beasts.
I was clean, I was awake, I wanted my breakfast! We started scooping out, all three of us, the remainder of last night’s dinner from the communal pot, making balls of it and eating it cold. As I said, I don’t care much what I eat, as long as I eat, so I was fine and satisfied when finally the village turned out. What a bunch of lazy lobbins!
They started making pancakes, but I was already talking to Khusai and Mina. Turns out there were only two people in the green tent — three tents had been empty until last night, when Thamsin had decided that the gray tent was hers, now that she had a man. These were Bhakmet and her daughter. They had disappeared about a dozen days ago. Khusai had seen camel trails to the north that morning. The village’s camel hadn’t disappeared, so it must have been others.
I got worried now. Real worried. Tales from our Princess got me spooked. Iss-Peranian merchants would pay good money for a young child, or even a servant woman. And the Queen is really against that sort of thing. Like, really pissed when that happens. To me, it looked like we needed to look into that.
And we started with the Síthi merchant from the camel party. I had asked our boys to sort of spy on that party. They had heard from one of Phuli’s kids, the five -year-old one, that the Síthi merchant had said something like wanting to conquer the village. That was suspicious, too.
So I approached our merchant friend, with Ailin as knife-wielding backup. I proposed a friendly chat, outside the village. He came with me — I can be quite convincing, even if it’s not a girl I’m trying to convince.
Really, his story didn’t work for me. He came to trade, he said. Well! Everyone knows that the reason the Khas tried to conquer the east — Solay, Valdyas, Iss-Peran — is that they were poor like temple. Grain, Khusai had said the merchant was after. Three camels cannot carry enough grain to Solay to make all the bother worth it! I couldn’t believe him when he told me that he wanted to fill his bags with grain.
It’s lousy grain, too.
So I decided to ask the question a bit more pointedly, and gave him a friendly bear-hug. He still didn’t come clean, and I couldn’t figure out a way to be more persuasive without becoming a murderer. Though we found a temple letter that Phuli could read that said he had ten thousand golden eagles to spend on trade over here. Payment for an army to invade Solay? That was my best guess.
I’m not only stupid enough to hitch up with a girl who’s taking me serious, like, ferin-for-always-and-forever. I’m really not officer material. You won’t, never, ever, never, see a ship sail into harbour with one Miallei Ferin, skipper. That’s a bet you can make without any fear for losing your money.
I settled for making sure that the merchant fellow would join our expedition for finding camel-abducted Bhakmet. In the meantine, Khusai and his uncle Tasgal were quite happy to give a welcome to the two soldiers that had come with the camel party. In fact, one of the widows took the male soldier in, and Tasgal decided that the female soldier was welcome in his tent.
Ailin and I didn’t care much. We promised Khusai that we would return and set out. It was quite a procession! Me and Ailin, our six kids, and of course, my lady love. Maybe I’ll fall in love with her, I don’t know. Right now, I know one thing: it was stupid, stupid, stupid to feel her up and kiss her down.