I understood the names that Ferin spells “Tassel” and “Middaya” and as “Tasgal” and “Mitea”, but we’re probably both equally wrong. The other boys (the ones who were with the old woman) are Makane. Bayat and Ram.
We didn’t want to join the camel, Khas and Síthi party, but we didn’t want to lose sight of them either. I knew nothing of the world beyond the fort, and neither did Ailin. We decided to wait for a while and then follow them. I thought it would be easy, after all, camels are like horses: they don’t use the chamber pot.
It had been pretty cold that night: cold enough that we had almost but not quite cuddled together. We hadn’t counted on that, in Solay it had been warm, even hot. But we’d been climbing steadily all day yesterday through increasingly hilly country and, as I said, it was cold.
So we begged a bunch of old blankets from Faran, who, I guess, didn’t really know what to think of us, but who was really helpful anyway. I quickly cut two of the blankets and sewed them together into longish, rough, warm jackets. What there was to spare from Ailin’s jacket went into mine! And two other blankets I quickly converted into the kind of rolled-up blanket with a cord that the Ishey men always seem to carry, even in hot-as-a-smithy Solay.
The road was nearly untravelled, the scenery bleak and uninviting. Rocks, pebbles, stones and the occasional clump of dry, sharp grass. There was a nasty wind coming from the south-west, cold and dry, carrying quite a bit of dust. We lost sight of the river pretty soon, since it was down in a gorge which went west-north-west, while we were going due west.
When we arrived at the first heap of camel dung I started collecting it in an old shirt of mine. The shirt will never be the same, I’m afraid, but on the other hand, there wasn’t any wood, nothing, not even bushes around.
There wasn’t any water to be found either, and we were glad to have taken double rations with us. We drank our fill — Ailin proposed to only sip a little, but I knew that you can either drink enough, or die. There’s no way you can eke out water rations, as I had learned when we we caught in the doldrums off the Velihas coast.
The camel dung was already incredibly dry and we made a — smoky! — fire and cooked ourselves some rice, while we put some more rice to soak for our breakfast. Great Mizran! We were smart to have blankets, jackets and the fire, for the night was cloudless and cold.
Next morning we continued our way. Near noon we found a place where the camel party had halted and there was a track leading to a knoll of greener grass. Water! In a shallow, muddy pool, but now we knew what to look for, when searching for water.
From here, the path went west-south-west, and there were other patches of high grass, and even some bushes. We heard some owls, sometimes some other birds, saw a few field mice, but no other animals.
Near one of those dry, gray-leaved bushes we found Tassel. Only we didn’t know he was called Tassel, of course! He was lying face-down half on the path, half under the bush, knocked out, a short, sharpened wooden stick near him. When we turned him around we found he had a gaping wound in his forehead. He was Khas (of course, this being Khas country).
While I started washing his wound with brandy and clean water, Ailin looked around. She spotted a party of three men, boys actually, coming towards us over the grassy plain.
They weren’t gifted, but Tassel turned out to be gifted indeed when he came to his senses. Very gifted, only ten years old, he must have the potential to become a grand master! There was a bit of the Nameless to him, though not really recognizable.
Ailin speaks a little Khas gibberish, and she was yammering at the three boys while I was helping Tassel. They were also carrying spears, and wore some kind of leather trousers and coarse cloth shirts with leather vests.
It turned out that they had hit Tassel because he was dangerous somehow. We had thought that it had been people from the camel party, actually. But when I shook the oldest of them a little they promised they wouldn’t kill him and they proposed to take us to their witch.
That turned out to be in a little, narrow gully which went south-south-west from where we were standing. There was a small stream trickling down, and next to the little stream the witch.
She was an old woman and when Ailin took a look at her, she gasped. So did I when Ailin showed me what she saw: nothing. There was no anie at all! For all practical purposes she seemed completely empty. But she could still speak, and from her we learned what was going on here:
There was this mage (later we figured out he was her son) who was keeping three small, gifted children, kind of like pork in a barrel: anea ready for use. They had freed Tassel, and now the mage would come looking for Tassel. They intended to put an end to him, though they didn’t have any real plan yet.
By then, it was late. We shared our rice with the others, they shared their grain with us. Ailin and I took a look at Tassel with semsin: we discovered that it probably was true that the mage would always be able to find him, there as a sticky line coming from his breast that went all the way out of sight. Middaya, that’s the witch, she had the weirdest colored clothes on, she warned us not to touch it or do anything about it, or it would sick the mage onto us as well.
The next morning I explained how I wanted to set the trap.
Basically, we’d set Tassel as bait. Middaya, she would hide us. The boys would grab the two other children and make sure that they were out of action.
And we would grab the mage and, well, kill him. We had had a long talk with Middaya about the gods, about Anshen and the Nameless, or Anchuk-Den and Anchuk-Mar as they call them here, thinking they are one and the same, and we realized this was really the kind of Khas mage our witch, that’s Raith, had been fighting in the war, the kind that kills young, gifted children to abuse their anie for power and cheating Naigha of them.
Middaya said she couldn’t harm the mage, but I didn’t feel any qualms. That might sound callous, but I was there, in the Palace of Solay when Raith released the poor children’s souls to Naigha, the ones that had been locked up in the palace walls.
Ailin in the meantime had kept, carefully, watch and she had spotted three gifted people coming along: one adult, two children. It was time to set the trap! Tassel, by the way, had agreed to his role, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it!
Then we spotted the mage. He was wearing something that looked like a tattered, frayed Síthi gown, like the Mitshalashuk priests are always wearing. He started when he saw Tassel in the middle of the path, and then I sprang my surprise.
When I had seen his gown I figured he might have seen, or heard of Raith, and I gave him Raith. Everything I remembered of her I put into a blast of anea that simply must have smelled enough of Raith that had our Princess been there would have put her in heat! For the mage, it had the opposite effect and he took a step back.
That was when Ailin stabbed him with her dagger, and I grabbed him, kneed him, gave him a blow to his head that made him reel. Ailin then cut his throat with her throwing knife.
The children who had been following him, a boy and a girl — she was only about seven years old! — had been collared by our boys. While Ailin was retching, I and Middaya took a look at the two boys and the girl. They were free indeed — I had been afraid that when he died, the mage would have taken their anie with him. They were so scared… But Tassel told them who we were — and they told us they were Mar and Fikmet.
There remained one more thing to do: to bury the mage. I started collecting big stones, but that was wrong, apparently — he had to be burned, and Middaya already had a pyre prepared. I put him on it, and she climbed up with him! I tried to stop her, but Ailin stopped me.
She asked, “He was your son, wasn’t he?” And Middaya answered, “Yes, he was my son, but now my life is done. Let me go with him…”
And suddenly her anie flowed into her body, as if it came out of nowhere, filling her with gentle — well, I don’t know what, I’m sailor, not a clerk. It was amazing. Ailin asked her whether she could learn that as well — but Middaya set the pyre on fire. We prayed to the gods — and left.
Now we had six children with us! What to do — go back to Solay already, with them, giving them a chance to learn semsin and letters and so on in the Palace? We were sure Ayneth would welcome them. But we hadn’t figured out yet whether the Khas were making themselves ready for another invasion, and that was our duty.
In the end it was Tassel, I think, who proposed to stay together and go down the gully, to the plains where there were animals to catch and eat, and to go and see what else we could find out!