Unexpected help

We did it right. My other half said that if he’d been a really nasty GM, he’d have made the ‘weak links’ break and/or betray us, but we were doing so well at that point that it would have complicated matters needlessly. Enough complications as it was. I-the-player was thinking ‘autistic’ for parasat but Athal didn’t have the word, and probably not even the concept. Anyway, it seems to be something subtly different that neither I nor Athal has a word for.

I’m still baffled at the ephebe-like appearance of Timoine: the last time he appeared he was a seven-year-old redhead, gap-toothed smile and all. It’s like being tripped by the dream engine (which, instead of Athal’s nightmares, delivered more cats, though not green-striped like the night before).

After the doctor had gone we sat on the veranda for what seemed to be hours. I was feeling a little sheepish. I should of course have told the boatswain –what was his name again, Lyan– that he was right, and I resolved to go and do exactly that as soon as Dushtan was back with some news.

It was almost dark when she did come back. She drained our jug of wine first, and I handed her a bowl that still had some fruit in it and she ate all of that too. Then she sat back and drank some more wine, from a cup this time, and a woman came from the kitchen with pasties made especially for the doctor. “I gave them the recipe,” she said, “and they asked ‘No pork? No salt pork? No lard? No blood-sausage?’ but I told them no, only sweet potato.” Then she bit into one with obvious delight.

She was very tired: she’d done her whole round as well, assuming correctly that Raisse wouldn’t be up to it yet. But there was a hint of smugness about her too, as if she’d made a discovery. She needed very little coaxing to tell us, not what it was –she didn’t have words for it that we could understand, and even the words we didn’t understand weren’t completely right, she said– but we’d have to do something to help the young bird priestess before morning, or she might not survive the ritual. I voiced my fear that the whole village, the whole tribe, might not survive picking up and moving, but Dushtan assured us that there was no such danger. After all, though her ancestress had settled in Solay twelve hundred years ago, and the village was hundreds of years older than the kingdom of Valdyas, they’d travelled before and they could travel again.

She’d noticed another thing: in the village there weren’t any ancestor spirits at all. Her own home was crawling with them, and even the palace in Valdis was full of them. Raisse and I looked at one another, alarmed: the palace full of ancestor spirits? We had never seen any! But they seem to be innocuous, it was only strange that these people had been living here for so long without leaving any.

But the priestess, that was a whole other thing. Dushtan tried to explain: when someone was gifted in Solay, but couldn’t speak to other people with their mind, they became parasat or even, when it was very bad, adiraparasat. No Ilaini word for it, apparently, but it had to mean something like ‘mad’ and ‘howling mad’. It had happened to someone she’d heard priests talk about back home, and the priests had disagreed on whether one person was adiraparasat while another was merely parasat because he was more gifted or had been without contact for longer. The priestess was both very gifted and had been without contact for ten years at least; surely she must be adiraparasat from it by now. Did she have a name? Apparently not, though Raisse had been calling her by the name of the bird she dressed up as, Marabu. But Dushtan thought that was bad luck, like calling someone Vulture or Raven. Better call her Hinla: the lark, that rises into the sky and sings.

Getting through to the girl was something Raisse could do and I couldn’t, but I could call all the gifted people (as Dushtan recommended) to keep the young priestess safe. There were about a dozen and a half in all, including the three in the Guild of the Nameless from the student militia at Ildis. Three were from the school in Turenay, some were soldiers and sailors, and there was Raisse’s chambermaid Lysna, and Ran who handled lace. And one bewildered Iss-Peranian sailor who had heard the call and followed it.

I thought it a good idea to practice first, to get to know each other and see what we could do together. Dushtan went to tell Mikhanan that “the Valdyans” were going to have a ritual on the village square, and I gathered everybody –except Raisse, obviously– and asked them to find themselves, to stand as firmly as possible in the way they knew they could do best.

One of the people from Ildis spoke up, a journeyman in the Guild, about nineteen, with a wisp of beard and copper-rimmed glasses. “My master used to say, back home, that if you do something like this” –hedging it around with a lot of “that’s not permitted to say”– “you should have a smithy. Warmth, fire, not the fire that burns but fire to make something, and a door you can bar, and soft light and the smell of horses.” Well, obviously we couldn’t have the smell of horses, but I would probably be able to make a door I could bar, and there was bound to be someone who could handle fire. “I can at least make a floor,” I said, and I did, a ring of granite that ran around to encircle all of us and closed with an audible bang, bringing a worried woman from the kitchen.

From the other side of the circle a wall of fire –warming, not devouring– came back to me and closed right behind me. I knew it came from the man from Ildis, and I nodded to him in acknowledgement. Looking around the circle, I could see who was comfortable with doing it like this: as I’d expected the ones from Turenay –one stood exactly like Vurian, he must have been his student–, the ones in the Guild of the Nameless, less expected because I didn’t know what to expect of them, but they were obviously trained; the lace-maker Ran, who looked delighted, as if he’d found an unknown talent; the Iss-Peranian, who still looked a little bewildered but was doing very well. Some of the soldiers were definitely uncomfortable, the weak links in the chain. I noted who they were so I could help them if they needed it. We stood like this for quite some time, getting used to each other.

When I dropped my own protection, the wall of fire dropped too, but the link between us didn’t disappear. Good. We went to see the priestess, who Dushtan had found a derelict house for, not much yet but better than her hole in the ground. A sailor was sitting in front of it, sipping the local beer from a pot with a straw. When we explained what we came for, she consented to letting us in. First she got Lyan for me. I told him, as I’d intended, that he was right and I should have admitted that much earlier. He nodded. “Thanks, king.” Still insubordinate, but it didn’t matter, not now. “It’s Guild stuff, right?” he asked, and I could only say yes. “But if Guild stuff makes you squirm, you don’t have to stay,” I said. He did want to stay, though. It turned out that he had an older sister in the Temple of Naigha in Tal-Havin, so he knew about priestesses of Naigha; I sure wished we’d had one with us! But the only one who had come on the voyage had been on the Khandihan’s ship, and only the gods knew where she was now.

It was a small house, but we all fit in after we’d moved the bed with Hinla on it to the middle of the room. I’d asked Torin, the soldier whose brother Raisse was keeping in touch with every evening, to sing the First Invocation because he was the youngest and this was definitely a case for Timoine: the girl was still a child, the doctor had said, not a woman yet though she was about sixteen years old and most girls in the village had their first child by then. He had protested at first, “I’m too old for that!” and yes, at fifteen he was probably too old but he was the youngest person there. I could have done it myself –after all, I’m Timoine’s servant, I wear the green ribbon– but my place was in the doorway, keeping the seal whole. “King, close door,” that girl had said in the night –was it really only last night?– that we spent singing, and now I was about to close a door again.

It was hard to keep from bursting into the Second Invocation when Torin was done, not only for me but also for the people from the Guild of the Nameless on the other side of the room. I could see them squirm and check themselves just as I was doing the same. It would have been embarrassing to sing two different invocations at the same time and have both of the gods appear. I didn’t think we’d need Mizran, and though Naigha would have been useful, perhaps not just yet.

We were all around Hinla, with Lyan at her head and Raisse and the doctor at her side. I had to judge very carefully what to make the floor of; in this place all the floors of the houses were of packed earth, so I took that and made it firmer still, unshakable, undiggable. A fleeting thought of the quicksand at Erday reminded me that it should be firm deep down as well. The student from Ildis countered with the fire, softer than it had been at the preparation, not like a smithy in town but in a village, warm and safe and welcoming. I nodded to Raisse, “it’s yours!” and she took Hinla’s hand and stayed still for a long time.

A really long time. It was so quiet that we could hear each other’s breathing, and we’d have been able to hear a pin fall if the floor had been stone instead of earth. In fact, the edges of the floor were getting so warm from the fire that they were baking into brick. Raisse was still sitting at Hinla’s side, and the girl was making small sounds now, but beyond that I could see nothing happening. It looked as if Raisse was completely inside herself, or inside Hinla, or both: I could see as little of her mind as on the ship, though this time I was sure that it wasn’t my gifts that had gone.

Finally, things started happening very fast. Hinla seemed to have some kind of fit and Raisse, dripping with sweat, tried to hold her. I could sense that Timoine was close and called “protect the child, please!”– only to be pushed forward into the circle by someone who could only be Timoine himself, who took my place between Torin and the Iss-Peranian. The last time I saw him he’d looked like a child; now he was an achingly handsome young man with curly blond hair and very few clothes on. I could only obey him and went to hold Raisse, keep her safe, put even more firmness underneath her so she couldn’t founder. She was mortally scared of something she’d seen or experienced, but held on, and I held on to her, even when a great flood of that something came from Hinla and washed through her and over me, hitting the wall of fire and burning away.

Hinla was awake now, looking small and clear, watching Raisse with wondering eyes. They were talking in their minds, but I caught the tail-end of it: it seemed that Hinla had adopted Raisse as her mother. As soon as the link between them broke, Hinla spoke aloud and neither of us could understand her. Dushtan sent us away, because Hinla needed to rest– and, unsaid but no less clear, so did we. She promised Raisse to call her as soon as Hinla needed her, probably because she knew very well that otherwise Raisse would want to stay.

People were reluctant to leave; most of us were still hanging around outside the house. I caught the man from Ildis –Mernath– and we talked about the seal for a while, our different ways of working. It was hard, because there were lots of things he couldn’t talk about because they were his Guild secrets (not that I didn’t know some of those from Moryn and Raith), and I was trying to avoid saying the wrong things because I wanted to keep him on my right side– no use antagonising the people I’d just made my allies. The ordeal had made him a master (as it had made Torin a journeyman), probably much sooner than he’d expected, and he needed a master of his own Guild to show himself to, which wouldn’t be earlier than Albetire. “We’ll have to talk about that before we take ship,” he said, and I agreed, but not immediately: I wanted to sit, and eat, and drink, and think.

The group of semti broke up gradually, most of us quietly drifting away to whatever house or tent they slept in, until only Raisse and I and Mernath and his two companions ended up at our house. Mikhanan was sitting on the veranda, and we told him what had happened; he must have been there half the night, drinking wine, because he wouldn’t stay, but got up and walked unsteadily into the village, saying that he’d tell the others.

“Maile, see if there’s any beer in the kitchen,” Mernath said, and Maile retorted “that’s because I’m a girl, right?” but he said no, it was because he was a master. It sounded playful, but it made me feel very sharply that yes, these were of the Guild of the Nameless. But they drank beer with us, and for the moment we were not enemies, only adversaries, as if we were having a game of kings-and-queens between friends.