Saying no

I like Ferin! Though Ailin is exasperated with him at times. (And he with her; they’re exactly like brother and sister at the moment.)

In other news, this is an adventure story, danger and all.

I’ve taught her to say “no”.

In Ilaini.

I’m not sure whether that was stupid or not. I do know that I have had it with obedience — with owning women. Especially those four — and why I’m so pissed that Bayat owns Bakhmet, instead of me, and her daughter, I don’t know. In any case, I’ve taught her to say “no” to me. In Ilaini.

It was on our way out of the village of Khusai, Khusai and his dozen women, girls and children, all his private property, except for my Thamsin.

Well, I’m still not sure about myself — but Thamsin has been good for me. Ailin, too, and I’m afraid Ailin is getting jealous of Thamsin. And I’ve been around long enough that I cannot say, “I don’t know why!” Damn… Life is really complicated these days.

So, to get back to the beginning, we’d moved out of Khusai’s village, that’s me, Ailin, Thamsin, Talai-the-Sithi-merchant, Tassel, Bayat, Mar, Makhane, Raham and little Fikmet. We had one camel, a waterskin a person and some sackfuls of grain.

Lousy grain.

We went north, cautiously, trying to find two-week old tracks of a camel, a girl and a woman. That is just not as hard as tracking a two-week old spoor of a dolphin past the gulf of Tal Havin, but not much easier. Even for our hunter boys!

Of course it was little Fikmet (I love that girl, she went hunting with Ailin the other day), who found the first trace of a camel’s foot, a very nice, clear print in some muddy ground near a pool. We compared it to our camel’s footprints and one thing was clear: the older one was much deeper.

We knew we were on the right track then — to the north, disregarding the plains to the left or the gulleys in the cliffs to our right. There weren’t many animals around, some mice and rabbits, our boys’ owls, some distant big beefy beasts on the plains. Once Ailin caught an egg, while the owl caught the bird. The egg was edible, even though there clearly was what would later be a baby bird inside.

Four days later the rumbling of my stomach became a point of earnest discussion between Thamsin and the boys, and we went out for a hunt. I’d prepared a net, they had spears, Ailin had her knifes. We caught a small cow with black hairy skin and long, curved horns. We left the innards for Mizran. No sooner had we left the kill site, or the vultures were gorging themselves.

Thamsin knew how to skin it, but she did it different from any butcher I’ve ever seen: she cut the meat from the skin, instead of the skin from the carcase. Still, it worked, and we had lovely cuts of meat. It was extremely tasty and lasted us a long time!

We traveled for four, five days before we saw the first human beings. Someone, gifted, but not much, about a day ahead. We made ourselves inconspicuous in one of the smaller gorges. There I made a seal, and we went ahead with our usual evening tasks: I was teaching everyone their letters, Ailin and me were teaching the gifted kids semsin — such a pity that Thamsin isn’t gifted! — and then there were wrestling lessons for everyone, including Thamsin and Fikmet.

The next day, we were surprised by a cloud of dust to the west. Two men, seated on a single camel were travelling westwards. Our boys said that they probably were out hunting. But the gifted mind was still in the same place, an hour or so to the north. Besides, there was no way, not even with our camel, that we could have overtaken those two. Not even if we’d just put Fikmet on its back.

By then, Talai was the most frequent camel jockey, since his poor merchant feet were reduced to tatters. My Thamsin, despite her soreness, had walked gamely on and even little Fikmet hadn’t had any trouble keeping up with us.

The first people we saw were four women. They were dressed in the usual Khas layers of cloth, maybe thirty-ish, maybe younger, and they were digging in the rock which came out of the cliff here. Two were digging with picks, the other two were crushing the stones to pebbles. All four were awfully thin, underfed — and not too pretty, but that goes without saying, for they were Khas themselves.

Ailin and I looked at each other and then asked Thamsin to figure out what was going on. That seemed the quickest way — to me, these women didn’t look like desperate girl-snatchers, and they weren’t.

There was a captain here, they said, and he was the boss. And a mage, and he was bad news, too. And two underlings, soldiers, and they were not nice either. Fortunately, they had brought themselves a woman and a girl. To care for them, these women said. Thamsin’s face was a study all by itself when she heard that.

But when we were talking, a small, wiry man came out of the entrance to the mountain works. He had a sword, leather vest and he snarled, “What’s up here? Why don’t I hear you fucking cunts work?” Then he paused, and asked, “Who the fuck are you?”

Ailin translated that for me, of course.

Although I did know the Khas word for “fuck” by now. (I’m still trying to find better, more fun words for Thamsin to use, but I guess I need to teach her some more Ilaini.)

I went up to him and said, “Well, I’m Ferin, this is Ailin, those are our kids — and I’m going to get these women out of your foul hands.”

Ailin had to translate that, too.

The captain turned an interesting colour and started spitting words I didn’t understand. Didn’t want to understand.

So I stepped up to him and gave him a shove against his breast. He nearly lost his footing and shouted, “Are you challenging me?”

I got that, so I said I guessed I was — and gave him another shove.

He drew his sword, and I didn’t want to get out of reach, my reach I mean, so I closed with him, grabbed him in a bear hug and hugged until I heard him pant for breath. The bastard dropped his sword, and I hooked my arms behind his shoulders, grabbed his chin in my hands and pushed his head backwards. His neck snapped, just like that. I had seen my old skipper do that before, in the East, but I had never tried it myself. Works fine!

Only then I noticed the shouts around me. And I felt my side, and it was spurting blood. He had stabbed me with his sword, and I hadn’t even noticed! Thamsin started staunching the flood, and in the meantime, a tallish man in a huge blue, patched, gown came out. He was the gifted one…

But I couldn’t move, it was all I could do to not fall, so I stood my ground and let Thamsin do her best. It was Ailin’s turn to face the blue-gowned one, again.

I’m not sure what she did — I was seeing floating black spots and feeling a bit faint — but she hit out with her mind at him, and the coward fled… Followed by a bunch of spears and Ailin’s knife. She caught him right where it hurts, in the buttocks, and he fell over, whimpering a bit, until he lost consciousness.

I looked at the women, and asked them whether the mage should be left to live. They were still gaping at us, but at that they came up to me and told me that, no, no, not at all — please cut his throat! I wanted to ask Ailin, but she was helping Thamsin to clean my wounds and bind them up. So Makhane took his knife and — easy like slaughtering a goat — he cut the mage’s throat.

I’m not too sure what happened afterwards. I was still losing quite a lot of blood, but a woman and a real pretty girl, the first really pretty Khas girl I’d seen, came out of the works’ entrance. Thamsin came up to her and they embraced each other and chattered in their lingo, I couldn’t understand it. But Ailin didn’t need more than one look and she went up to them and helped them with salve and good words. Poor woman, poor girl — three, four men they needed “to take care of”, and the girl twelve, if that old. I got pretty pissed off at that, but I was feeling like I was drunk, so I kept that bottled up.

We made to leave then. We didn’t want to be here when the two soldiers on their camel returned, not with me mostly out of action. Makhane wasn’t sure at all that he and the boys could tackle the two soldiers. I think those women have to learn to fight, they are all pretty strong!

It turns out that this was an iron mine, and that the iron ore was brought to the King’s Army, to the west. Now that was interesting — if only I had been clear enough of mind to think!

It was a weird journey back to the village. I remember ordering everyone to go up through the first gully to the top of cliff, the mountain ridge, to make sure we would avoid the camel guys. Then those two, we saw them ride with great haste (poor camel! ours hates to even amble around) to the north. Then we sent Makhane and Mar to the north, post-haste, to warn our village…

I remember being cleaned with water and brandy and bound up by Ailin. I remember her telling me that soon she would feel hale enough to allow me to touch her, like I was touching Thamsin. That made me wonder what was going on in her mind… I remember Thamsin cooking… We still had meat. I remember those four women telling me they were mine…

I remember talking to Talai, when I was riding the camel with little Setsie (her full name is Erdenetsetseg Ailin tells me, but that’s too hard for me, she is Bakhmet’s daughter) sitting behind me, holding my shoulders. He told me he’d planned to grab everyone in Khusai’s village, after fighting Khusai and taking them for slaves to Solai. That’s when I realized that my plan to bring all of them to the princess was too close to his plans to succeed. Later on I realized that it was Ailin’s and my presence that had kept him from going on with his plan.

I remember telling my four new women that they needed to learn to fight.

I remember teaching Thamsin her first Ilaini word — “no!”.

I don’t remember much from the fight when the two soldiers overtook us in the dark. Their camel stumbled and broke its forelegs. One of them was killed, the other escaped. How, on the strength of killing him, Bayat took Bhakmet and little Setsie as his womenfolk, I don’t understand. Maybe Khusai gave them to him, now that he was a man.

They use iron sticks for money here, it’s really strange.

And then, I hadn’t slept for days, because I knew that if I would stretch out on the ground, not all the combined strength of all of the others would get me up again, I remember waking up in Mina’s tent, feeling woozy and hungry.

The women were all giggly, all looking at me — “my” women as well as those in the village. When Thamsin came to help me eat, she was blushing, and I think, but I’m not sure yet, that she had been telling the Khas women not just about my fight, but also, well, that they should expect more of a man than they had known. That’s good, I’m sure of that. I won’t blow my own horn now that Thamsin takes care of that, but the women here need to learn a thing or two, and then make sure the men get taught!

Bayat was pretty insufferable, with his two women, but I’m going to give him a lesson in civilized behaviour — and if he doesn’t take it, well, I guess I can allow his women to make their own choices.

Like my four women… Well, “my”… They felt that way, but they were at least part-way to becoming their own people, they had gone on strike, not a work-strike, but an eating-strike, and they had stopped eating to force the four men to stop mis-treating poor Setsie. Good for them!

Though they do need feeding up. Seeing me, seeing Ailin, seeing Thamsin, too — and also Fikmet, who had decided to go out hunting, despite hunting not being work and therefore man’s work, they decided to make their own decisions.

They told me Khas men never do any work — it all gets dumped on the women. No wonder, then, that there wasn’t any work going on in the village, the women were taking a break now there weren’t men to force them. But, as I told Khusai later on, I think that village was dying. Weird, I keep thinking of it as “our village”, and the gray tent as “our tent”. Mine and Thamsin’s, mainly, with the communal part for our boys and Fikmet. The four mine women had grabbed a tent of their own, good for them again!

I have to admit, I was pleased, real pleased. I had foreseen difficulty telling them that I am a one-woman-per-country man, but it was easy. They told me they had come to a decision.

They wanted to visit the Khas King, the last King, in his Army camp, the last Khas Army, and tell him that women were no longer to be chattels, but people.

And I think we’ll join them, and go there too. Visit the fort first and give Faran letters for the Princess, maybe Mina wants to learn from Dushtan, maybe Serla and Phuli want to go to the City, maybe others. But our kids, what I think of as our four soldiers (even if they’re women, and we’ll get swords and shields for them at the fort), me, Ailin and Thamsin — we’ll go and take a look at that Khas king.