Wow, that was powerful. I was getting a bit impatient with Athal because he was reluctant to use his abilities, but I think he’s over that now.
It seems to be my destiny to make towns disappear. But more about that later.
We had the entertainment, and I did play the lute, but we had to leave early because as long as the king and his guests are there the real party can’t begin. I’d have loved to be at the real party too. Someone (perhaps Raisse) said that I should stick on a red beard and go, but I pointed out that I have a red beard –which reminded me to get the barber to give it a trim before we leave– and that even shaving it right off wouldn’t make people not recognise me. Anyway, no partying for this king, he’s far too busy. Leaving in a few days, not the least because Halla warned me that the royal funds won’t stretch to a much longer stay of the complete delegation from Iss-Peran.
Two or three days followed in which we didn’t actually get to do anything because other people were taking care of the preparations, but still we were busy all the time. Then, at last, we found ourselves standing beside our bed at the crack of dawn being dressed for travel. And just at that moment a page came running in saying “there are twenty large barbarians outside waiting for an audience!” The delegation from the Western Plain, of course, expected but not that soon: they were going to be sent after us.
I asked for the chief and a few others to be shown into the little audience room. In fact they were neither large nor barbarians: about my size, and looking civilised enough. The chief, who had a lynx skin like Reshan’s, spoke passable Ilaini with a thick western accent. They had hurried to see me, to implore my assistance against the invaders from the south. From what the chief said, the invaders were almost certainly Khas: small, dark, with few weapons but there were a lot of them. I asked whether any of them were gifted. The chief didn’t understand it until I phrased it as “can they speak to animals, or see spirits, or talk without sound?” and he said “neither the animals or the spirits have told us that they can”.
Khas, then. If only “the prince with the lynx” could come and help them, miracles would happen and all their problems would be solved. I had to suppress a laugh: it was Reshan they wanted, finally someone who didn’t need me in person to solve their problems! Not that I liked having to do without Reshan on the expedition to Iss-Peran, but it was a clear case of first things first. I told the people from the Plain that I was on my way to see the prince with the lynx, and promised to send him their way with any troops my general (pointing at Ferin who had just come in, wearing full general’s uniform) could provide.
Ferin took the “barbarians” to Vurian’s house, who had after all been born practically on the Plain, and we thought we could really leave now. But another page came in asking what he should do with the horses? And the hides? It turned out that the visitors had brought gifts, which were in the yard: ten splendid stallions decked out as riding-horses, and ten pack-horses looking unhappy under the weight of piles of hides. The Master of the Horse was standing by, admiring them, while several female pages oohed and ahed and patted horses on the head. I briefly considered taking one of these to ride south on, but they were all stallions, and though they were perfectly well-behaved I thought it would be wiser to travel with just mares and geldings.
The hides were unloaded, the horses packed off to Valdie Liorys, the Mighty Servant told about the gifts. We could leave at last. Just outside town the Khandihan and his company joined us: an impressive procession. It was weird to travel, like a dream, and I kept remembering little things I’d forgotten, only to be told by Raisse that she, or someone else, or even I, had already taken care of them.
We made it to Lenay in good time, where Raith rang her bell and served a banquet. Reshan was there, and Moryn –I’d never realised until now that those two are very good friends– and indeed almost everybody who was somebody in Lenyas, down to the Mighty Servant of Lenay, who sat uneasily in Raith’s great hall with three grand masters in the wrong Guild, not to mention all the other people in the wrong Guild. Village children dressed up as pages served at table: the Khandihan would never know that the Baroness of Lenay doesn’t have enough servants for a function like that.
The House Eraday was conspicuously absent, except for Reshan (well, and Moryn, but he consistently calls himself Rhydin these days). That was understandable, Moryn said with a scowl, because most of them were far too busy planning rebellion.
Reshan agreed that the Plain needed him more than I did; we spent quite some time assigning most of my guard to him, and as many of Raith’s guard as Moryn didn’t need, carefully not sending Khas troops to fight the Khas invaders. He could also take the Order from Ildis –twenty-eight people and an old smith, according to Raith; I could imagine the old smith charging at the Khas with a hammer in each hand– and the Academy swordfighters who had been such an asset in Idanyas, at least those who were back.
That night we slept in a large bed with clean sheets. Being back in Raith’s house made me fall into old habits: I made a mental sweep of the region. Everything seemed to be normal, perfectly all right… Wait! Where Erday ought to be there was nothing, a complete blank. Either there was nobody living in Erday any more, or someone had put a whopping great seal on it, so strong that I couldn’t see through it or even determine who had made it. The next morning at breakfast I asked Raith “have you seen Erday?” and she hadn’t– not the way I hadn’t seen it, but not at all. Fancy Raith not doing a sweep at night! Either she’s slipping, which doesn’t seem plausible, or she was very preoccupied.
There was no way around Erday if we wanted to go south, at least none that wouldn’t destroy people’s fields and vineyards when such a large company barged through, so we took the road. It seemed wise to reconnoitre before we tried to take everybody through, so Moryn sent a sentry who came back saying there was an earthen wall across the road with a seal that he couldn’t get through. The Khandihan sent a messenger, “is it true that there seems to be an obstruction?” and I said yes, but the obstruction was about to be dealt with.
We pitched camp just out of sight of Erday in order to go ahead with only the guard and the semti. The Khandihan sent another messenger, “if you require help from me or my soldiers we will be glad to provide it”, and I conferred with Raisse and we agreed to say that when we needed their help, we wouldn’t hesitate to ask for it. It wouldn’t do, after all, to kill people just because they were in the way, which seems to be what they do in Iss-Peran.
Yes, there was the earthen wall, about three feet high and innocuous-looking, but it did surround all of Erday that we could see. And a seal as well. A whopping great seal, just as I’d seen –or rather not seen– the night before. I could see that people were moving about inside it, but it distorted everything like a sheet of rain. We stood looking at it rather stupidly, until I decided to knock. Nothing, of course. It wouldn’t budge, it didn’t make any sound, it just stood there impassive and unyielding.
There was a column of smoke going straight up from the middle of the village, so straight that it couldn’t be natural; there was enough wind around us to stir the leaves. “That’s the Nameless,” Raith said, and it chilled me to the bone. That it was of the Nameless was pretty clear by now, but the thought of the Nameless himself having a hand in the rebellion (for it had to be that: the House with the Otters was inside the seal, and that was Lord Fian’s) was daunting. Of course, many people wouldn’t see the difference between rebelling against the king and rebelling against his Guild. “I wish we’d flattened the House with the Otters when we put down the last rebellion,” I head Moryn mutter.
While we tried different ways to get through the seal, or over it –Raith exclaimed “It goes all the way to the sky!” in an awed voice, and indeed the geese were flying around it rather than across– I kept touching it absently, like a cat worrying at a snail, giving it less than half my attention. Until, that was, my fingers got very cold. I warmed myself from inside, Raisse took my hands and rubbed them, and I left the seal alone. Reshan found a mole under the ground and followed it, finding that the seal went down at least to the bedrock: the mole had to go around too, like the geese. A shrew, on the other hand, did get through, according to Reshan because they hardly have a mind at all.
“I need a volunteer who isn’t gifted,” I said, and Jinla Hayan presented herself, on a horse, with a squire on foot at her side who wasn’t gifted either. She kicked her horse into a gallop and let it jump over the earthen wall. At least, she tried. The horse tried, too, crashed into the seal, fell, got up with a puzzled look on its face, and limped a few steps. Jinla took it away to care for its injured leg, looking offended as well as puzzled. “Stupid seal! Stupid people! I’ll pelt them with arrows!”
I didn’t know how many innocent people there were in Erday. Arrows would probably tend to hit the wrong one, even if Jinla Hayan was the best archer among the young nobles. It was clear that if every person we could see through the seal was an enemy, they outnumbered us. But we did let her shoot an arrow through the seal –it went without hindrance– with an ultimatum to Fian tied to it, phrased by Raisse with just the right combination of anger and subtlety.
Raith was puzzled, too. “The seal and the fire– they seem to be connected. If we can break the seal, would the fire go out? And if we put the fire out, would the seal break?” She thought the seal kept the fire going; I thought the fire fed the seal. But that was a moot point, because we could neither put out the fire or break the seal, at least not without a lot more effort, and we didn’t want to destroy too much too early. Now if I’d been Vegelin the Great, I could have dropped a load of water on the fire–
“You’re Athal the Great,” Reshan said.
That made me laugh, but also think. What could I do? Throw Erday into the Valda as I’d dropped Dol-Rayen into the Mera, conceivably, but that would obstruct traffic, and probably kill a lot of innocent people. Wait… “Reshan, where’s that mole of yours?”
He took me there, but I couldn’t orient myself with the mole’s senses: it was too disconcerting to be blind and dependent on smell and touch –so much touch!– and some weird sense of place, of direction, a feeling of “I am here!” that had nothing to do with the world above ground.
It was sandstone. Loam, then sandstone that the Valda had gouged a deep chasm in, then rock. Sandstone is mostly air. I could dig as far as I could and make the sand fall, and the air rise. If I could get deep enough, and close enough to the column of stone under the fire… I formed my anie into something like a mole, gave Raisse my left hand and Raith my right hand to hold and check for chill –“don’t forget his nose!” someone said– and dug.
It was strangely exciting to have hands the size of shovels, to have a nose that didn’t only smell but also felt and gave direction, to push the sand aside as I would swim in water. Hard work, though. Moles must be very strong for their size. I did make progress, and as I got closer to where the fire must be I sensed –because I couldn’t see, not at all– that it was indeed a column, a core of cold that went up, up, to the surface and higher.
I tried to use my shovel claws to pull a tear in the bedrock for it to disappear in, but that was beyond me. (Later, Reshan or Moryn asked “were you trying to pull all of Valdyas apart?” and the other said “no, the whole world!”) The sandstone, then. By comparison that was easy. I couldn’t actually touch it, but I could make it move: sand to the bottom, air to the top, falling grain by grain. It was sliding; it was pulling.
Out! Out! I must have called aloud, because Raith and Reshan were pulling me out, and I collapsed into the arms of Raisse who held me fast while I came to my human senses.
There was a gap halfway into the earthen wall, with a huge molehill next to it. And the seal was sliding away from the wall. People scrabbled at it from the inside, all grown men and women, armed and in some sort of uniform, most of them in Eraday colours. Then it had fallen away and we could see that the greater part of Erday had been devastated, turned into a smooth plain of sand with a shallow funnel-like depression in the middle, tapering to a hole that looked bottomless. Houses stood forlorn on their wine cellars, which gaped wide open or were filled with sand.
The column of smoke disappeared. Blown apart and away, in fact, by a wind that was so strong that we had to grab the nearest solid thing –an oak sapling, in my case; some were hanging on to hedges and posts– in order not to be sucked into the hole in the middle of Erday. First sand came with it, and then rain, and more rain. It was a full-blown thunderstorm now, with lightning everywhere in the sky that had become an ominous grey. Raith was the only one standing alone, unsupported, fists balled at shoulder height and eyebrows screwed up in concentration.
Then the lightning and the storm stopped and there was only the blessed silence of pattering rain and a soft breeze.
There was a lot of fighting going on by now. “Is Fian astin Eraday there?” I asked, and Moryn went to fetch him for me. He was at the door of the House with the Otters, about to go in. When I caught up with them Moryn was holding Fian by the neck, sword pointed at his throat. “I want to cut this man’s head off,” he said.
“Not without questioning.” I looked Fian in the eye, but there seemed to be very little of his mind left. “Fian astin Eraday?” No reaction. “One thing– why?”
“Freedom,” he said, barely audibly. Then Moryn thrust a piece of paper into my hand. “Found this on him.” It was Fian’s ultimatum: if Athal astin Velain, king of Valdyas, didn’t hand himself over to him, Fian astin Eraday, within the hour, he would kill every inhabitant of Erday secured in the House with the Otters, one by one, starting with the youngest.
“Moryn, do it,” I said, and Moryn did it.
While Moryn went to show Fian’s head to the Khandihan, thinking he’d probably be impressed, I entered the House with the Otters and found the hall full of people: all the children and many adults. It was some time until I could tell anybody at all what had happened, because as soon as I’d answered a little boy’s question “Who are you?” with “I’m the king” they all wanted to get close to me and to touch me. Raisse, too, was practically covered in little girls from the moment she came in. Finally I found a village elder, who told me that Lord Fian had made the villagers build the earthen wall, then locked them all up “for their own safety” and lit the fire. “He was possessed by the Nameless, wasn’t he?” and I had to say that yes, he was. And this one thing was true: being locked up in the House with the Otters had kept them safe.
They put a fence around the bottomless pit to keep children and goats from falling in, but it didn’t have to be very durable. Erday had been destroyed. First by the digging, then by my sand-moving, then by the fighting. It would be Raith’s job to find them new places to live and work, probably on the other side of the river. Moryn’s job was easier: to mop up the dregs of the rebellion, because all its leaders had been here in Erday and been killed or caught. He also wanted to catch and kill every otter he could find, but that’s probably too much.
Now that the House Eraday doesn’t have an ancestral seat any more –I think they’re going to demolish it and throw the pieces in the bottomless pit– I wonder how long it will exist. Reshan has already said he wants to take another house-name and jokingly charged me with thinking of one. At least that will be a distraction when I’m trying not to die of seasickness! I just hope the Nameless won’t put more obstacles this size in my way, because I’m not going to have Raith and Reshan and Moryn next time. But I have Raisse, and myself, and we will manage.