At the fort

Ailin will have it known that snakes aren’t slimy! They’re dry and firm and smooth and altogether awesome.

And then we were twenty! I haven’t counted exactly, let me do that… Ailin and me, and Thamsin. The kids: Fikmet, Tascal, Mahar, Raham, Makhane and Bayat. “My” women: Odgerel, Sepideh, Batuldzii and Sarangerel (I got their names exactly now, because I’m teaching everyone to read and write). From the village, Phuli with her kids Behen and Atayu, and also the widow Serla. And then the Sithi merchant Thalai and his boy Bar and soldiers Sanyat and Ishi. That makes twenty-one. Not bad when you consider that that witch Mina was trying to keep everyone in the village with her foul songs!

For a while, life in the village was quite fun. I got to play a land-lubberly kind of bosun, making sure the layabouts in this village got a field day or two, three. And none too soon! The creepers on the tents, the leatherwork, the cording — I had them all cleaned and repaired. Made some of the men — uncle Taschal might have a leg-and-a-half, but he could handle a broom, dammit! — clear the rubbish between the tents. The clothes needed a thorough washing, the grain got in from the fields and stored, and, great Mizran!, no matter what was I going to eat gray dried meat when there was beef on the hoof to be had!

I was still not well enough to turn a hand to it myself, but one day Ailin came to the village to tell me that she had caught a big, shaggy wild cow, and that the boys and Fikmet couldn’t get it home! So I took some of “my” women and went out, finding the right spot by looking for Fikmet’s brightly burning mind. That night we were going to have roast beef with onions, even if we had to strip one of the side-valleys of all its wood!

We also got talking, about who would go with us, first to the Valdyan Fort at the river, and then to the Khas king. There was only one left — old Taschal had seen him once, from a distance. This king had killed all the other kings. Taschal didn’t seem particularly impressed with the Khas that had gone over the mountains, to Valdyas, Solay and Idanyas.

Indeed, he seemed to think of them as wasters, who knew they didn’t stand a chance fighting against real men, Khas, in other words. Taschal was proud he’d lost his leg not against a sissy easterner, but in a real fight, with a real opponent.

Still, people from the village must have been over the mountains, because otherwise, how could Phula and Serla have arrived here? Besides, it’s only two, three days.

The next day we fixed that we would leave the day after. One of the tents was demolished, and we would take it with us, having confistaken one or two of Thalai’s camels for the purpose. He protested, but not too much, because I was up and about again by then. I was going to walk, though Ailin and Thamsin protested bitterly and said I should ride on the third camel.

It took three hours to take down and pack up the tent! And it would take just as much putting it up again! I was all for leaving it behind, but by then Ailin had made friends with the guardian snake, and she was going to carry the slimy brute and take it with us.

The day we left the village, the sky was gray, and it got darker and darker as we went eastwards. For some time, I was afraid that Mina was doing some weather stunt, like our Witch, I mean, baroness, but Thamsin assured me Mina could not change the weather. Still, it was nasty: wet, dark, dreary — and the damn tent was all but useless.

Fortunately, the fort was only a couple of days distance. Amazing, so close to the Order of the Sworn and a place where Valdyans live, and then the situation in the village… With slavery, girl-robbery and apathy.

We felt even more out of sorts when we arrived in the fort. Ailin was carrying the snake around her shoulders, we had very nearly an army of Khas, some of them gifted… I had warned Faran before we arrived, but nothing could have prepared the guards for us.

Still, we were allowed in, and made welcome. Ailin shooed our snake cellar-wards, to hunt rats, and we got food. And beer! Glorious beer. Great Mizran, what had I longed for a mug of cool, dry beer. Thamsin was cute enough to steal sips from my mug, which made her sleepy.

I told Faran all about how we had fared, about our adventures — see earlier letters — and how I had come to be with Thamsin. At one point, when I told him I had chosen her from all the other women who were making eyes at me (he didn’t believe me at first, that there would be actual women competing for ugly old me, but then, for those women brawn and a capacity to protect come before finely-chiselled features!), Thamsin looked up from my beer, a bit disturbed, as if she understood what I was saying.

Nonsense of course, her Ilaini is still limited to “No” and “Yes”. But I decided that the fact that I had gone to bed with her was caused more by a desire to provoke Khopai into a fight than a desire for her is something she doesn’t need to know. It’s stupid, I still don’t know whether I want to spend the rest of my life with the girl, but I can’t bear it to hurt her in any way…

My wound had opened again, but there was a Guild doctor who healed it like poof! with his hands. Just like the Iss-Peranian doctor girls who had visited the Princess, just before we left. With my pain gone, after a good night’s sleep, I shooed all the other people out of the dorm, and made sure Thamsin still was sure she was with me. That made me worry again… We’d been together for four, five weeks now. Wasn’t it time for her period? The Iss-Peranians call that the Offer to the Mother, which sounds nice, but doesn’t make the women any less grumpy.

Anyway, it was time for sending Serla, Phuli and their kids to Solay, together with a guard from the fort, and lots of letters to the Princess and the witch. After that — Faran taught us to handle a sword, since all of us had been selecting old Khas armour and weapons from the armoury. Weird swords, one side sharp, one side blunt and quite pointy at the business ends. They fitted me like a dagger fitted Fikmet… Until we found one my size, that is.

In the meantime, we all got checked by the Guild doctor, and given a clean bill of health. And Thamsin had started to bleed that morning, so that was okay as well. I asked the doctor whether I had made her bleed, but that wasn’t so, phew! And she had a good, long talk with all the womenfolk, about babies and how not to have them, also the beauty and strength of the word “No”. Good doctor!

In the evening, we did our usual semsin exercises, this time with Faran helping us out. He was quite impressed by all what we already had done, but had a lot to teach us.

Whether it was because of that, or something else, I don’t know… But that night I became a journeyman. I had the strangest dream, where I was walking through a forest, dark and damp, with tall trees, and no brushwood. I was going down a path and arrived at the edge of the forest. There the path forked, and I saw a young boy at the fork. So similar to the Dayati we’d seen in Solay, and also similar to the Timoine I knew from home. But unmistakably Khas. What was a Khas doing here at the edge of the woods? I hadn’t seen any trees in the Khas country.

He told me I had to make a choice… Go one road or the other. At the end of each road was a small hillock, a kind of mound. They looked man-made, somehow. One was occupied by two — gods, really gods. Naigha and, again, Timoine. At the other, Anshen, the Nameless and Mizran were waiting. Well, I use the Ilaini words, but these were clearly the Khas gods. I should have remembered their names.

I don’t want to have anything to do with the Nameless! But Naigha is not for me, I am a man, so I went left.

When I arrived at the mound, all three surrounded me. They touched my shoulders. It felt like a blessing, but also, somehow, like taking possession of.

Then I woke up…

I was a journeyman, now, I knew that. I didn’t know what the Nameless’ touch had done to me — whether that had made me his, too.

Faran came almost running to our dormitory, where Ailin and others had woken up already. He could reassure me, somewhat, he looked at me and didn’t see a sign of the Nameless. But whether I was now bound to go and learn the Khas way of semsin, that he couldn’t tell me either. Fikmet and Makhane didn’t think I was bound on the path to become a Khas sorcerer, and that made me feel better.

We resolved to leave for the King’s court as soon as I was fit again to travel. The irony! The biggest, beefiest person in our group, and every time everyone had to wait for me before we could travel!