The blighted land

This covered a lot of story-time but we got through it fairly quickly, because most of what happened was travel and scenery.

Very soon we were on the move again. This forest was so strange that I didn’t know which fruits or leaves or roots we could eat, and nobody else did either, not even the woman who had been born here and known about the red snakes. The air tasted unfamiliar in my throat and there was a lot of water in it, as if it could rain any moment but it still didn’t. I did pick a fruit at one time but it fell apart in my hands and gave off a smell of rot, fermented already on the tree.

Then a command came down from the sergeants, from the captain, from the high-up officers, from the general, that the witch had told everybody not to drink any water from a stream or pick any fruit or plants or catch and eat any fish or animals. As long as we had food with us, that was easy, so nasty was everything. The animals thought it was nasty too, the cart donkey would rather go hungry than eat of the grass and herbs, even though he’d been very greedy in the other forest. We heard that one of the elephants had fallen, right on top of the people walking beside her, because she couldn’t breathe the air or something. We stopped for that for some hours while the witch got the elephant up again. It seemed like many moons that we were in that forest, perhaps it wasn’t that long but it was long enough because the food almost ran out, but then it got a little better and we could make proper camps and get water.

Every time we had a camp some of the soldiers made a road right to the sea so that they could bring us food from the ships. And people came from the ships too, and some people went away with the ships. Khahid came to say goodbye to me one night, because Arin’s time with the army was up and they were going to Valdyas together where there were doctors who could look after Khahid and make sure he didn’t get so ill again. I didn’t have anything to give him, because I’d given my spinning-top to Hala, and anyway I didn’t think Khahid would like a spinning-top. So I just hugged him and said I’d miss him and he’d taught me such a lot (all of this was true).

Erian came to talk to me very seriously the next time that there was a road to the sea. “Mousy,” he said, “this is your last chance to go to Valdyas before we get to the place where we’re going to fight. If you go to Veray to Halla and Alaise and tell them about me, they’ll give you a home and let you learn to be a smith or a doctor or whatever you like.” That almost made me cry, and I said “I don’t want to go to your country without you!” even though I very much liked to learn things and I thought I’d get on with Erian’s Alaise from what he’d told me about her. “All right,” he said, “but I want you to promise something, if I’m killed you must go to them and tell them everything.” “I promise,” I said, with the words I’d learnt to promise with even though he didn’t understand them, “if you are killed and I live I shall go to Valdyas, to Veray, and tell Halla and Alaise everything that’s happened.” And then I said it in Ilaini too so he would understand.

We still had lessons every evening that we weren’t travelling, with Arin Hayan teaching letters and words because Khahid had gone. Erian was in the lessons too, because Captain Rhyn had said he’d make him a sergeant before the next battle if he could read and write properly before we got to the harbour city, called Kushesh. He wasn’t good at letters, and couldn’t write well with either his left or his right hand. I’d tried both hands and found out that with my right hand it was easier, and that makes sense because it’s also my knife-hand and my best throwing hand, but Khahid wrote with his left hand and said that those letters were easier with the left and Valdyan letters with the right, probably because of who had invented them.

When we came to Kushesh it was a proper rainy season with actual rain, almost the Feast of Naha, and Erian still couldn’t read and write very well though he practiced all the time but the captain made him a sergeant anyway. He wasn’t very happy, though the soldiers liked him a lot, because he had to do all kinds of things besides fighting, and fighting was the thing he was really good at.