The fort falls

Last installment, because we’ve left Raith and Ayneth in Solay to mind their own business while Athal goes home to his family and kingdom, in that order of importance.

I’d thought the journey to the fort would take days, but it was more like weeks; making camp in the evening and setting out in the morning took the greatest part of the time. We passed several villages where some people stayed behind, but more joined us. When we were in sight of the fort my legion had grown to forty-five thousand at least. I let the people stop before the end of the day, because there was something I had to do which I couldn’t do where the Khas could see us.

I selected a girl of about nine and a youth of about fifteen and asked them to send me everyone who was not younger than she was and not older than he was. There were so many young people that I spent the whole rest of the day letting them pass before me, and sending the ones who looked gifted to one side and the rest to the other side, promising to speak to all of them. When it was fully dark, and I was exhausted, and there were still hundreds or perhaps thousands waiting, I sent all of those to the gifted side and went to speak to them first.

I explained where Khas mages got their power from, “you –or at least most of you– are their most coveted material”, and tried to emphasise that I was going to leave them here, in the camp, not for their own safety but to avoid making the Khas mages any stronger than they already were. And I had work for them to do: get the camp ready to move, so that we wouldn’t be held up on the way back– phrasing this carefully to avoid the word ‘flee’, though perhaps it would come to that. Two boys and a girl looked very gifted, budding grand masters, and I called the girl to me and tried to reach her with my mind. She flinched: “Grandmother has forbidden me to see spirits!” I said that it was only my spirit she was seeing, firmly attached to my body, and I should like to be able to rely on her in case we did come back and wanted to go on home right away, to warn her in advance. She nodded cautiously, wanting to please– I’d have liked to have time to teach her, but that would have to wait until this was over.

The other group was harder to talk to, because I had to explain first why I was taking them and not the rest: were they all sissies? “Nobody is a sissy here,” I said, “or they wouldn’t have come.” I tried from the practical side and enlisted them as my personal guard and support troops: who had stuff to make a noise with? who could climb? who had fireworks? This made them eager at least, and I committed a few faces and names to memory deliberately, and then crashed in my tent and slept like a log.

The next day we advanced to just out of arrow range of the fort and set to besiege it. I’d wanted to get up while it was still dark and ask my young support troops to tell everybody to burst out in noise at dawn, but I must still have been tired because I overslept and woke only when people came to tell me that a large group was already at the wall, shouting at the defenders. It was mostly women, some with children, and they seemed to be scolding the soldiers but I couldn’t understand it, as it was all in Khas. I must start learning Khas when I’m back! Some of our people called them back, and they came, but not before a man had fallen to his death from the wall– or perhaps he’d already been dead when he fell, because it wasn’t higher than about forty feet.

I realised that some of the soldiers in the fort must be the women’s husbands and sons and brothers. Perhaps most of them! I tried to find a way to keep soldiers from dying if they jumped from the wall, and thought we’d use the wagon covers, but some of the men had a better idea: spread bales of straw to make a cushion. Eventually they wove reed mats from the rushes growing in the river, dripping wet, so the fire arrows that some of the defenders fired fizzled out. Nobody jumped, though.

There was a kind of stalemate now, a tense silence. I talked to some of the fireworks boys who were throwing firecrackers over the wall. “Very good, you’re driving them all crazy!” I said. “Do we have to drive my half-brother crazy, too?” a boy asked, and of course he was right. “Well…” I started, but he already had an idea. “Suppose we wait until tonight to set them off, and cook lots of delicious things to make smells, and they’ll think we’re feasting and want to come out!” People were already foraging in the countryside; amazingly they brought back ducks and wild pigs too, though most of them were Síthi. A woman went to the fort with two small boys in tow and threw pasties over the wall. Later, I saw baskets being let down and pulled back up filled with food. There were no mages in evidence, which worried me a bit.

Another day passed much like that. There was more noise inside the fort, more food being sent up. Eventually a basket was cut down halfway and immediately a man came flying over the wall– almost cut to shreds. “Looks like they’re having a mutiny,” someone said. Merain of the Order of the Sworn called me, “what in the world are you doing there?” “Driving the Khas to mutiny,” I said. “I think most of them are our people really.” He cautioned me that they could very well send horses out to attack and scatter us; good point. “Do we have anything against horses?” I asked one of my boys. “A rope at ankle height?” he suggested. “And we’ll keep some of the rockets so we can scare them.” I thought perhaps spears in the ground at an angle, but he was against that, because the riders at least would be able to see them.

There may or may not have been another day; time started to run together in my mind. I remember asking someone in charge of supplies how much longer we could besiege the fort. “Two or three weeks,” he said. “We have the river.” At one point a woman ran up to the fort, addressing a stream of invective in Khas to her man on the wall, mixed with Síthi that I could just understand: “This is what you want! Not the army, not the fort, but this!”– and she bared her ample breasts at him. People were making love in the camp, much more than they’d been doing earlier. It made me pine painfully for Raith.

Still no mages, which worried me more and more. But as I was about to go to sleep in my tent I saw a sky full of bright stars and realised that we’d been able to see bright stars last night and the night before that as well. It was still warm and close, but the clouds were gone. “They’ve fixed the weather back in the city!” I said to nobody in particular.

That night, the gates of the fort opened very slowly and riders came out. The anti-horse rope worked: the first few out of the fort stumbled over it and broke their legs, the next rank stumbled over them. When there were enough of us there with torches so that we could actually see something, a good forty horses and their riders were lying dead in front of the gates. I couldn’t see by the clothes if the riders were officers, but if they were riding they were likely to be. No other soldiers came out of the fort. They couldn’t have even if they’d wanted to, because about forty thousand people were trying to get in all at once. I let myself be taken with the stream.

Clearly the fort had started out as a Síthi fort: there were high walls but it had only one floor. It was hard to see more than that, because there were people everywhere. Women, and some men, were hugging and kissing soldiers. I saw the carpenter it had all started with embrace a young man who looked rather like him, while a young woman clung to the young man’s other side.

A girl came up to me: “Your Majesty” –I’ll get used to that yet, but it still sounds strange applied to me; obviously, because my brother is a king, they think I’m a queen– “there’s something you should see. No, don’t go there, they’re fighting there and we’re fighting too.” I let her take me, down cellar stairs, through a short passage and round a bend, until we came to a large door that looked as if it was made entirely of gold. Now gold isn’t all that hard and the door echoed and didn’t dent when we banged on it, so perhaps it was gold-lined iron or copper. There was a strong seal on it that smelt of Khas magic. However I tried I couldn’t get it open –confound it, I’m not Athal– so I ordered it barricaded with any large heavy objects people could find. “What about the back door?” the girl asked. I must have looked very stupid, because she went on, “Haven’t you ever played hide-and-seek? Never hide in a place with only one exit.” Of course I’d played hide-and-seek, in a palace at that! I sat down on the ground and tried to find any disturbance in the earth. It didn’t look as if there were actual openings, but the earth wasn’t packed equally closely in all places. I couldn’t make much of it, so I called Merain on the other side and asked him “do these forts have secret passages?” Sure– there aren’t any forts without secret passages. The secret passage from the other fort led to somewhere behind the mountains to look out over the Khas lands. Well, if it did, and the mages had gone out that way, good riddance: they’d be for the army to worry about. But still, it would be a good idea to have a look.

Merain couldn’t keep up the contact for long –he hasn’t got the practice I have, I suppose– so he proposed coming over. An hour or so later he arrived with two journeymen. Somehow I’d pictured Merain swimming the river, but they weren’t wet so they must have had a boat. “Oh, a Khas seal,” he said. “They’re not worth much. So easy once you know how.” And before I could ask him whether he’d let me in on it, he’d taken the seal off. “You must teach me that,” I said. “I’ll be here for the next twenty years, time enough.” “I won’t be staying that long,” he said. “Ale! Women with red hair and freckles and broad firm thighs! Something else to eat than rice!” I could understand that: though I like rice, and have red hair and freckles of my own (though my thighs aren’t all that broad, I’m a Velain after all), I think I’m going to miss ale too.

With the seal off the door it was easy to look on the other side. Nothing alive behind it, but a lot of power. As I opened the door, air rushed in like a tempest. And stench came out– the reek of the dead, of people who had died in agony. Nobody who was within yards of the door could keep from vomiting.

At the back of the room there was a pile of bodies, richly dressed, mixed with rocks, one with a rock flattening both of his hands, one with a rock on his head. It looked as if they’d been about to go through an opening and a rockfall had killed them. “These must be the mages,” I said. “Looks like a bit of the castle fell on them.” I wondered privately what or who had caused the convenient rockfall– it had a strong smell of Athal about it.

There was a little more fighting, and a lot more feasting and joyful reunions. It went on until dawn and might have gone on forever if I hadn’t gone back to the camp to pack –or rather, to have people pack for me– and ride at the head of the legion again. I don’t think any of the soldiers of the fort who were still alive after all the fighting stayed behind; I had fifteen thousand more people to take home.

Athal and Raith were at the gate. I fell into Raith’s arms first, forgetting everything around me for a moment. “I didn’t expect to be away so long,” I said, “it’s been, what, six weeks?” “Seven,” Raith said, and wrapped herself around me again until I wanted to hug Athal. “You did it, didn’t you?” I asked him, and he knew immediately what ‘it’ was. “Yes, I must admit that,” he said. “One of the sergeants had seen the secret passage in the other fort, and I happened to take a look exactly when those mages were trying to get away through it, so I dropped a few stones on them.” And of course the clouds had disappeared at the same moment. “They sealed the front door, and I sealed the back door,” Athal said, “so they didn’t have any air to breathe. One thing the Khas mages can’t do is make air.” “We can’t do that either,” I said. I felt strangely unresolved, as if I hadn’t done anything at all, but when I said so to Athal he told me “If you hadn’t gone, nothing would have happened.” True, of course. This is the one thing I can do really well: make people do what they want to do, but don’t actually do for some reason.

So we had food, and a bath, and Raith got Grandmother to give me honest-to-Anshen faranie tea from Dushtan’s stock, and all of our household –more than when I’d left, I think over a dozen more– wanted to talk to me and touch me. Surtaunu gave me his little brother to hold and nestled against me, telling me about all of the new family. Ishi grumbled about my hair as if I’d never been away.

When we got back to Athal he was on top of the great gate overlooking the crowd in the square, making a speech. He stood on the shoulders of two big soldiers while two more big soldiers held him by the legs. He’d obviously rehearsed it, and I don’t think he’d written it: it was perfect rhetoric making it very clear that Aumen Síth was to be the greatest city in the world once again, where people of all nations would live together as equals. His tone changed: “I see all of you,” he said. “Yes, I see you,” jumping off the soldiers’ shoulders and picking up a little boy from the crowd. “But I’m invisible!” the child protested as Athal climbed to his high position again, still carrying him. “I see you,” I said, “don’t you, Raith?” “Nobody will be invisible in this city,” Athal said, and then put the boy down and let him run back to his parents. It went on for a long time more, while people at the edge of the square were already cooking food and opening barrels. When he finished, it turned into a feast seamlessly.

“I’ve made that square into a market square,” he said as he came back to us. “I hope that doesn’t interfere with your plans.” We hadn’t made any explicit plans yet, but a market would have been high on my list of things to get started. “And– remember our old teachers? First they make you sweat, then they praise you. I’ve done it the other way round, I’ve praised them and tomorrow it’s up to you two to make them sweat. I’m leaving on the evening tide.” “I’m surprised that you stayed at all,” I said. “I expected you to be gone when I came back.” “He had to make his speech,” Raith said. That made sense, of course; and if it was the last thing the people saw and heard of him that was what they’d remember him by. “Expect me back in a few years,” Athal said. “I want every child in my kingdom to have the chance to see their king before they’re apprenticed.” And with the parts of his kingdom spread all over the world now, that meant a voyage every four years or so, unless he wanted to travel the whole kingdom in one go.

Then the servants came to tell Athal that the ship was ready. Uncle Ferin was there, too– “do you need me, cousin?” but I didn’t, I had all the soldiers I needed, Talvi deserved to get him back. And I was pleased to see that Faran was going too. “I think I can do about half your work,” I said, “and other people can do the other half.” The look he gave me then made even Raith blush, and I think I grinned very sheepishly. The three men got into a little boat already filled with people and were off to the ship. Several women swam after it to give Faran a final kiss.

So we went to bed. We had the bed for ourselves for a while, then the household started to trickle back. “Oh! I said. “I was going to ask Merain to teach me to handle Khas seals, has he gone with Athal?” But then I saw him in a corner, cuddling one of our Síthi girls. Raith said, with a grin, “And Athal has gone north to Valdyas, not to Kushesh to heal the land.” “Who will heal the land then?” I asked. “Oh, perhaps the gods, perhaps someone else. That’s not Athal’s business.”

When we appeared the next morning, the hall was teeming with people who wanted to see us. We decided to see the angry ones first and then the ones we could talk to. We sat on the imperial throne, more than large enough for the two of us. Had he or the ancestor who built it been a huge man, or had he worn voluminous clothes, or was it just that he had wanted to show how great he was? The moment I sat down there, I noticed that I was really very much like Athal, even in my way of sitting.

A man started with a long tirade about “people who eat the flesh of thinking creatures” (which made me think of the ducks and pigs at the fort, and Raith of Reshan who could speak to animals’ minds but still hunted), not living as “we have lived for centuries”– well, in a time like this, change was probably in order! He stretched my Síthi more and more, until I said “I want Khanu” and she appeared at my elbow to translate. (I’m getting very spoilt, having all those people around who actually enjoy taking care of me!) Raith got really angry at the man when he talked about “giving those invisibles the same rights as us people” and floored him with her mind. Literally: he was lying at her feet. She got off the throne and beckoned to Khanu: “would you undress, please?” She took off her clothes too, to make the man see that both of them were women, equally visible. I don’t know whether he really got it, but he curbed his tongue after that. Khanu wasn’t completely convinced either: she insisted that of course we could see her, the gods see everybody! This made Raith go spare all over again: “we’re all just people, even Mizran!

After some more hours of trying to make it clear that men and women were just that, men and women, whichever nation or class they came from, and that the king himself had said that everybody was visible and ought to be treated as such, we were glad of having kept the easy petitioners for last. Food was brought, and it turned from an audience into a leisurely meal. How long before we have our audiences in the pool?

Now that Athal has instituted a market, I can get on with the next thing on my list. Rebuild the temples, starting with Dayati and the Mother and ending with Mizran, what’s his name here, Micalacuk. The gods don’t go away when there are no temples, but people need a place to talk to them. Raith wondered whether I wanted Valdyan builders for that, but I’m sure that among all the people in the city there must be some builders. When there’s a temple of Dayati I’ll find gifted children, starting with one as I started the march to the fort with that carpenter, and give them a chance to learn. Perhaps I can find that girl again, whose grandmother has forbidden her to see spirits. What I can’t teach they can learn from others, and perhaps I’ll learn a thing or two myself. And I have to keep Raith from overstretching herself; I can see all the signs. At least she had the sense to ask me to come and take care of the city with her. I don’t know how she would have ended up if she’d been alone.

We can’t make the whole world better, but we can make our little piece of world a little better. After those exhausting audiences Raith asked me “shall we adopt Khanu as our own daughter?” and I thought that was a very good idea, I’ll see if I can find someone to do the paperwork. It’s only now that it occurs to me that I won’t have to worry so much about heirs any more.

Oh, and I must learn Khas, and hope it doesn’t get in the way of my Síthi.