Priest of the Earth

A slow start after the holidays. We started off doing administrivia –translating what we’ve been learning since we left Valdis into skill points– and Athal turned out to have picked up three points of Iss-Peranian, enough to talk like a pirate tourist phrasebook. Also, more warcraft than he thought he had as well as yet another point of seal-making skill (from breaking the protection on Erday), causing him to remark that there are probably very few people in the world who can get through his seals. To make a seal that the Nameless can’t get through, and keep it up, takes a lot more.

The next day dawned as suddenly as night had fallen; that’s what it seems to do in this part of the world. The sun was shining and my shoulder hurt like anything. Nothing new. I called the doctor –she was working, doesn’t that woman ever sleep?– and she came as soon as she’d seen to her more urgent cases.

“How soon can I travel?” I asked.

She gave me a choice of ways to travel: on horseback, not for a long time yet; on foot or on an elephant, a bit sooner; on a wagon, it would depend on the state of the road; and by ship, tomorrow if I liked.

Well, I didn’t like. No force in the world will make me like travelling by ship. But I needed –and wanted, I realised– to get to Albetire and do what I’d come to Iss-Peran for, which wasn’t defeating Khas in an out-of-the-way village. A village full of friendly and loyal people, but still. I had made a promise to Timoine. If it had only been a matter of statecraft it wouldn’t have been so urgent.

We had a conference –Raisse and I, the captains, Mikhanan, the army commanders and the priest of Mizran. Also a huge sow with her piglets, but we evicted them from the veranda.

We had a ship that was structurally sound but needed repairs and, most importantly, at least two new masts. Arni said that the local trees were no good for that, they’d have to go into the mountains and cut different ones. We also had two Khas ships that our scouts had sunk: those only needed the holes patched and that could be done in a day. And we had two hundred Khas who we could set to do the heavy work.

Talvi astin Hayan had a splendid idea: let the invaders already on the coast think that our two Khas ships had captured a Sithi or Valdyan one –the Eagle could pass for either– so we could sail to Albetire coast safely. Someone will have to sew flags with crowns to fly when we come within sight of Albetire, but there’s time enough aboard. According to Arni it takes about two weeks.

Kistid and some of the soldiers would go into the wood to get the trees for the masts; someone would repair the Khas ships; we would take all the pigs, some salted and some, at my suggestion, alive. That was the first time that it really got through to me that the whole village would be coming along: the result of Mikhanan pledging himself and his people to me as their king. I panicked for a moment –I didn’t have a place in Iss-Peran to put them!– but the gods had always provided before, it would be silly not to trust in them this time. Someone mentioned a kingdom lying empty, its capital razed, its fields fallow, all for the taking, but I didn’t intend to be a king in this country.

I could sit up for a while now, but didn’t have enough strength yet to keep it up for long. Having to lie down again was a good opportunity to take a look inside my broken shoulder– just as on the outside, it looked as if a butcher with a meat cleaver had been at it. I could wiggle my fingers, though: not everything had been destroyed. Perhaps if I kept them from getting stiff… But it hurt, and something gave in the upper arm and I was bleeding again. Dushtan was at my side immediately, tutting as doctors do, and stitched me up some more. “Moving comes later,” she said, “and I’ll tell you when.”

There had been no representative of the captured Khas at the meeting, because they hadn’t sworn fealty to me yet. As soon as I felt well enough, I went to rectify that, Raisse at my side. They were in the watch-tower, all two hundred of them, guarded by a handful of Valdyan soldiers. They sat around, dispirited, looking up at me without much evidence of hope or interest.

“Is there anyone here who understands me?” I asked, first in Ilaini, then in the best Iss-Peranian that I could muster. A man stood up and answered me: his command of Iss-Peranian seemed to be on a par with mine. “I am the king of Valdyas,” I said. “I am now your king as well.” He translated that and the men became a little more interested. “All of you are my people.” That seemed to meet with approval. The man who spoke Iss-Peranian told me his name, Bayat, and that he was “the leader of two ships”. I could get it across that we were going to Albetire in ten days –my good hand in the air twice– and that they would be put to work. “Conquer Albetire,” Bayat said as if that was the obvious thing to do with it, and it was quite hard to disabuse him of it.

Dealing with the Khas had taken all I had and I went back to bed. I suddenly thought that it would be more comfortable to be closer to the ground. Raisse went to arrange it. She came back from the kitchen with four strong women in tow, who lifted me off the bed and put me straight on the beaten-earth floor. It was indeed more comfortable, in spite of the lack of the mattress: I could feel how the currents of power ran in this strange earth, take and use them if I wanted, but for now I didn’t want to do anything except bask in it.

Raisse told me that the women hadn’t thought my request strange at all– “oh, is he a priest of the earth, then?” It turned out that their own priest was a priest of the earth as well. “Do you want to see him?” Raisse asked me. Of course I did, and the priest was fetched.

I’ve seen plenty of grand masters in my life, several as strong as I am and some stronger, but never someone who was so much like me as this man was. The patterns of his mind, the source of his strength: we were like left and right hand of the same person, matching perfectly. I put out my hand and he took it, making the same power flow through both of us. We didn’t need any words to make ourselves clear to each other.

Several women and children watched us from the kitchen doorway, but I didn’t notice until Raisse shooed them all away.

After a long time –at least it must have been a long time– we talked. I gave him my name as I would have done if he’d been a Valdyan, and he gave me his: Rikhi. I was surprised that such a man would live in such a little village, tucked away out of everybody’s sight, but he had been born here and lived here all his life. And, now I looked closer at him from the outside, I saw that he was of unassuming appearance, almost a hunchback, as if something had hit him hard and left him twisted. It was his body more than his mind, but in his mind too there was an imbalance that wasn’t only the difference between his trainng and mine.

“Did you come all the way here from Valdyas?” he asked. “On a boat?” Well, it had been quite a large ship, but yes; I told him that it had been very hard, that I hadn’t been myself. “I thought I would stay here when everybody goes, but if you can do it I can.” I promised that he would sail on my ship, and if we were in distress we’d hold hands and pull each other through.

[leaving it to Raisse to tell about the priest’s wife]

So I’m a priest of the earth. I wonder what else this country will give me in the way of surprises.

Raisse has been talking to some soldiers in Ayran astin Brun’s company; one a “sergeant in the Guild” according to Ayran, by which he meant a journeyman, and his younger brother who is still an apprentice. She’s taught the older one to reach her with his mind, and she is going to listen for him every evening as he goes with Kistid and the others to fetch wood for the masts. Before they leave I’ll put a warning seal on him so we will know if anything happens to them; but that seems to be all I can do about that at the moment. Perhaps we should see who else is gifted and have a real Guild meeting on foreign soil!

As to that, one of the Khas appears to be gifted too, but I couldn’t see him at all when I looked from the house. Raisse went to the watch-tower and saw him from the corner of her eye, blinking in and out of sight. Is this someone who is keeping out of sight now that he’s found out he’s gifted? Or the captain’s weather-maker who doesn’t want to be discovered? If he’s hiding himself, he must be tremendously strong; if someone else is hiding him, I’d like to know who.

Raisse has gone with Dushtan now, acting as her assistant. She’ll make a doctor yet– not Dushtan, already one of the best doctors I know, but Raisse, who turns out to have a talent for it. Thank the gods for learned women! I know that there are men who don’t want to marry too learned a woman, but I don’t understand them at all.