Caught in a canyon

Raith thought she was shaken by the previous battle, but this one shook her still more. Some of the fighting details may be off, especially the order in which things happened, but I think the gist is there.

This is Part I; Part II (much more cheerful) tomorrow or otherwise ASAP.

Somewhere in (I think it’s called) Dasht, on the road.

Darling Ayneth,

If my handwriting is shaky it’s because I’m on the back of an elephant again, and though they’re much smoother in movement than a horse (or even a ship when there’s any wind at all) they don’t exactly stand still. Strangely, either nothing happens or everything happens at once, with lots of travel in between.

I trust my letter about the battle with all the lightning, and the one with Bebakshi and the king of Jomhur (that makes it look as if they’re a couple, but nothing could be further from the truth) reached you in good order. That was around the feast of Timoine, and now it’s just been the feast of Anshen, and in that whole season nothing much happened except that I acquired apprentices. More than a dozen of them! Valdyan soldiers, a few Iss-Peranian soldiers, even two very young women –the younger no more than twelve years old, I think– who are Iss-Peranian camp followers. I started them all at the very beginning, even Bebakshi, and Jerna the sergeant who was already almost a journeyman when she joined up; now her gifts are so much in disuse that she wants to learn all over again. I’ve found that it doesn’t matter that some are going much faster than others; they all learn from each other, too.

After we left the King of Jomhur’s city we travelled for almost the whole season, with only a few small skirmishes along the way that I didn’t have to help with. I didn’t have anything to do except teach lessons whenever apprentices turned up in the time between their watches, and I tried to write letters but there was little to write about and no way to send them, so I gave that up quite soon. Just as I thought I was getting fat and torpid we came in sight of a kind of plateau which (from two day-marches away) looked as if we’d have to fly to the top, elephants and all, but Beguyan said there was a pass through it, a canyon between two sheer mountain-walls. It looked the ideal place for a trap. There were indeed Khas somewhere around, but we couldn’t see whether they were in the canyon pretending by magic to be in the wood, or in the wood pretending to be in the canyon. Understandably Beguyan didn’t want to risk a few thousand troops to find out. So I took Bebakshi and two of my best apprentices out in the spirit, all the way to the canyon, to see if there was anyone there that we could drop a rock on to scare them off.

Being two day-marches away from your body in the spirit isn’t very conducive to dropping rocks, of course, but Bebakshi hit one of the sides of the chasm with lightning and rather a lot of rocks dropped anyway. Boulders, even, with a very impressive crashing echo. Nothing moved, however, not even birds, and we turned back –the other two hadn’t entered the canyon, they couldn’t go so far by themselves and I couldn’t manage to take more than one person along– only to find that we were locked in. It had been a trap after all. An impenetrable wall that looked like glass at first, with strange inclusions, but coming closer we saw that it was a wall of ryst made out of fear, or at least with a lot of fear mixed in. When I came closer still, I could see that the fear was attached to people’s souls– dead people, most of them very young. I’m not afraid of the dead –I’ve seen enough with the pox, and I’ve been in a few battles– but this was so horrible that I needed all Loryn’s skills to cope. If I’d had a body at the time, I’d have wanted to wash it!

I had the sense to call on Naigha then, in what I remember as a very small and shy mind-voice, but it was enough: she came. I pulled one of the souls out of the wall and handed it to her. She took it in her arms and it disappeared. That felt like a good thing, so I encouraged Bebakshi to do the same, and she had the sense to start at the bottom so the whole wall would collapse. And yes, so it did, eventually, after we had picked up souls and passed them to Naigha one by one for what felt like days. I could hear her voice thanking us, “I’ve been waiting for some of these for a long time”. Later I heard –and remembered hearing it from someone before, perhaps Athal– that the Khas burn their gifted children as soon as it shows; presumably the mages take that anea to make themselves stronger.

As soon as the wall crashed, I felt myself being reeled in like a pike on a fishing-line, and hurriedly took Bebakshi by the nearest bit of anie, I think her spirit ankle, because nobody was reeling her in. I came to my senses on my own bed quite unable to move, or make a sound, or use my mind to speak to Tarin who was bending over me solicitously. “You were unconscious for two days!” he said. As soon as my body did what I wanted a little more, I asked about Bebakshi and was told that Sashila was taking care of her. That worried me for a bit, but Bebakshi came in soon enough, in slightly better shape than me, saying that she and Sashila had made up, more or less, but that they’d never be friends again.

I felt that there was something people weren’t telling me, and when I asked about it they were evasive, saying “that can wait”, but I didn’t want to wait, whether or not I could do anything about it right away. It turned out that rather a lot of Khas were camped near our camp’s west gate, led by a mage, presumably the one whose wall of souls we’d destroyed. “I can’t do anything about that right now,” I said, and before I fell asleep again sent Bebakshi with the patrol going to investigate the chasm because she could move about and use her mind to communicate, which was more than I could manage at that moment.

When I was feeling better –it must have been that evening or the next– I went to look at the Khas at the west gate. There were a few thousand of them with the mage prominently in centre front: tall, gaunt, clearly challenging me. We exchanged a few looks and had almost got to the testing-blow stage when the mage openly challenged me to a duel, minds only, without weapons. At that point I noticed something strange, and when I paid attention I saw that this wasn’t, as I’d thought by the looks, an old man, but an old woman. She reminded me –or perhaps the Loryn-imprint in me– of nobody so much as of Loryn’s old teacher.

I didn’t feel up to duelling just yet, and had to think about whether this was really the best option –after all, Beguyan would need me at Solay and this mage looked very strong– so I said “I’ll tell you in the morning”. I was about to turn and let her stew for a bit when she lashed out at me, and I made a rope of ryst to catch her with. She bit into it, gnawing it right through, and was loosening it when I set it on fire. That took her by surprise, but not long enough for me to do anything before she had punched it into a ball which she hurled at me, flaming. I was already slamming a seal around myself when Tarin leapt in front of me and caught it full in the chest.

There wasn’t much left of him. It made me so angry that I didn’t know what to do, but some of my apprentices put a seal around the whole Khas camp– of the airtight kind that Vurian used to teach. It needed maintenance, but I wasn’t going to sleep anyway, not with Tarin to have a wake for. Someone –perhaps I did it myself– sent for the priestess of Naigha.

Two of the Khas from our own army came to say that this mage wasn’t keeping to the rules, which meant that whatever I did in the morning they wouldn’t desert us. So far, so good. In the morning only the mage was still standing in the camp, surrounded by dead bodies. As soon as we let the seal down she took a deep breath and raised a wind. A storm. A hurricane. Obviously, she hadn’t seen me at Erday, I stood there while everything else was being blown away and took all that anea to myself. I prayed to Anshen, asking whether I had to keep strictly to the rules, but here Anshen is completely the god of war, nothing of justice or righteousness about him, and he made it very clear that I would be allowed anything that made us win this war. So I flattened her with the wind, the sheer power, dealing her a blow for Tarin first, and then wanted to hit her for each of those children but there was hardly anything left to hit and I had to let all my anger blow away to sea with the dead bodies.

Spent again, I had servants wash and feed me again –I could definitely get used to that!– and then Bebakshi came back, in a worse state than I was, and told me there had been a terrible battle. They’d kept the Khas back in the canyon until I’d dealt with the mage and then let them run past and attacked them from both sides, but for every fallen Khas ten of our soldiers had fallen. Now the canyon was more or less clear, though there was still some fighting. Soldiers were coming back into the camp, some wounded, some completely worn out, and the camp-followers took over immediately. For the moment, the women were running the war.

No, I’m not getting fat and torpid. My body is as wiry and trim as ever in spite of the stodgy soldier food, and my mind is perhaps leaner still, ruthless but no longer rash, with all embellishments burnt and blown away. You may not like me much at first when I come back, but I pray to the gods every day that you’ll still love me.