We sat on the roof terrace all evening– and at one point the wind blew my Page 5/6 into the neighbours’ gutter, too far to reach. The next morning it was gone, of course. I wonder what the finder makes of it, if they can even read it (wrote most of Page 6 in the dark). I stopped taking notes altogether after that. And then I got some medicine that made me very vague… But I think I’ve remembered enough to make a coherent story (otherwise, people will correct me). A few episodes did happen but are undocumented because I simply didn’t remember enough to put it in.
We’ll probably have to review latitudes: the GM thought that Rizenay was at the latitude of Helsinki and it didn’t really get dark, I think it’s at the latitude of Vienna (and Seattle; didn’t realise that Seattle was so far south). I’ve tried to wrangle it somewhere in the middle. Having Rizenay so far south does leave a lot of territory for the northern people to live in, though.
In other news, if I was making a film of all this, I’d have asked my checkout girl at the supermarket today (for an arbitrary value of ‘today’, I’ve been writing this over several days) to play Amre, because she matched my mental image of her exactly: small, neatly built, beautifully balanced face, doe eyes, nose just a bit on the broad side, smooth light brown skin and a sunny disposition. By her name I think her family is from Morocco, but she’d look wonderful in a sari all the same.
We slept in the tents and the wagon after all instead of in the shed: the furs might be soft, but they were also not completely clean and cured yet and they smelt like dead animal. So it was us and Asa and the little girls in the wagon, Atash and Jeran and Veh in one tent and Tao and Mazao in the other. The next morning, all the dogs came streaming out of the boys’ tent, barking like mad, and Tao let loose a stream of curses worse than I’d ever heard from him. The dogs had let the midges in! Now both Tao and Mazao wanted the fever medicine because they’d been bitten, and we thought it was sensible to get ahead of the fever.
Before we set out the hunters warned us once again against the bandits. “Can’t we borrow a couple of dogs?” I asked, and they thought that was a good idea and went to the pack with Tao (“you’re the one who knows about dogs, right?”) and the oldest dog to pick them out. We got three, all bitches, one a bit larger than the other two. They were impressive dogs, easily as high as my waist, with long grey hair hanging down from their chin and belly, bushy grey tails, sharp teeth and intelligent yellow eyes.
From here it was only a few days to the White City, the hunters said. It was dismal country, steamily damp, with midges trying to bite us even though we’d smeared ourselves with strong-smelling herbs. “You’re really sure you want to go there? You’ll have a guest, then.” And there one of the northern men was standing, smiling, with a bundle on his back. “Mother,” he said, making a gesture that looked like praying. “City. Walk.” We nodded, he was welcome to join us as long as he could either ride or walk as fast as the mule. (It turned out that he could walk as fast as the mule; faster, in fact, because he was ahead of us some of the time.)
The landscape was even wetter here, vapour rose from the ground when the sun came out. The road was a bit higher than the land around, probably because the land had sunk into the water and the earth that the road was made of was packed too tightly for that. The strangest thing was the light– the sun wasn’t nearly high enough! We could see flocks of sheep in the distance, and evidence that sheep had passed where we were going, too. The dogs were watchful: they ran ahead of the cart and around it, barking.
After a while –when we were long out of sight of the village of Boasting– we spotted movement to the east, too far to see with our eyes but with our minds we could see two people. When they came close enough they turned out to be two men on horses, dressed in threadbare army uniforms. “Who goes on the king’s road?” one asked. “The king’s envoys,” we said. Then the men wanted us to come with them. “To where?” I asked. “Lanyasinay.” “Look here,” I said, “I don’t believe for one moment that you’re from Lanyasinay. If you were you’d probably have seen the king on his way there.” “I didn’t see no king,” the man said, “you’re lying! I served in the royal army for five years, from Il Ayande to Solay, and now we’re collecting the king’s taxes for him.” Well, we weren’t going to believe that!
Meanwhile the dogs were between us and them, barking their heads off but too well-mannered to bite unless asked. “Call off your dogs!” one man said, and grabbed Amre’s wrist to pull her along. Then there was some confused fighting that I don’t remember much of, only that I said “You don’t touch Amre!” and tried to slap him on the wrist so he’d let go of her, but missed him completely and overbalanced and fell on my face. But Amre hit him on the neck with a staff, and he fell to the ground. The other man fell too– Asa had hit him with a sling stone! “Good job!” Mazao said, making her blush.
Well, that was the end of the two men who said they were soldiers. Perhaps they’d been soldiers, but I didn’t believe that the regiment in Lanyasinay would be so badly dressed, or treat innocent travellers and envoys like that! I didn’t begin to shake until we’d put the bodies somewhere far from the road, under bushes, so any flies they attracted wouldn’t hinder anyone. When the clearing-up was finished –Jeran and I did it, I think– I hugged Amre and asked “Do you think I’m a callous bitch?” because I felt like that, but she said it was something doctors do, she’d seen it with Roushan too.
All the time we were fighting we hadn’t seen the man from the north, but he came walking back now, smiling. “He’s a coward,” Tao said with a scowl. I didn’t judge like that, there might have been something that kept him from fighting –perhaps a vow to his gods– or he’d just thought it wasn’t his fight. And you can be not a fighter without being a coward, of course! Atash is brave too, though he doesn’t fight at all.
We travelled further, and didn’t stop to eat until we were well away from where we’d put the bodies. Veh took one of the dogs and followed the soldiers’ tracks back where they came from, while the rest of us stayed on the road. It must be almost evening now, but the sun just wouldn’t set! It was making the sky splendidly red, it was red itself, but it went down only very slowly. And in the north, in the mountains, there was the largest ruby in the world! At least that was what it looked like. Then Veh came back and told us he’d found a camp, a handful of tents, battered and dirty, with stinking dead sheep hanging from the poles– probably their food! There’d been a donkey tethered nearby, grazing, and Veh had set it free. No, this was definitely not the king’s army– more like a gang of former soldiers turned bandit.
At the end of the next day we came to a large white tower. When we went around it we saw that it was only half of an oval tower: only the south side was still standing, on the north the roof and half of the wall had fallen in. But it was large enough for all the animals –even the soldiers’ horses that we’d taken along– to be inside, and the upper floor was whole enough that the people could sleep there. The tower was all of stone, even the window-frames, and there was sculpture-work everywhere, of a design that none of us recognised: leaves and berries and bunches of straw and things that looked like they were just pretty patterns of curves and whorls. “This is not Ishey work,” even Veh had to concede.
We kept watch, two people at a time, and Amre and I had the dawn watch. The midges weren’t bothering us much, because we’d made a fire inside and burnt herbs on it, but it was damp and uncomfortable all the same. The dawn came very early– it was completely dark for only a few hours. We could see lights on the northern horizon, as if there were fires burning through the night, but it was too far even for us together to see more than that there were people there, and we could have seen that from the fires alone. When it was almost morning, there was a great flash of fire as if a whole pile of oil-soaked stuff had been set alight in one go, and the smaller lights went out. Then we went to wake Jeran and Atash (who were already awake and sat talking on Atash’ pallet) and went to sleep for another hour or so.
Now what was in the north wasn’t the world’s largest ruby, but the world’s largest sapphire! The sky was deep blue, too, the mountains must be of bright white stone to catch the light like that. Asa didn’t even look at it, she was brushing the soldiers’ horses (a gelding and a pregnant mare) and grumbling that she hated the queen, who killed her husband so she had to do all this travelling! I didn’t even begin to try to talk to her, if she was in this kind of mood even Veh couldn’t do anything.
We went in the direction of the sapphire sky –which turned to azure as the sun rose– and smelt burning, more and more as we approached the mountains. And we could also see the city, or rather the ruins of a city, all broken stone houses, the only thing that looked whole was a tremendous dome, like half a watermelon painted white and magnified ten thousand times.
Then we passed the place where the fire had been that Amre and I had seen in the morning, a field all burnt, next to what looked like a deserted camp with a low white wall around it. Not as low as the walls around village temples, that I could easily step over, this one came to my hips. It was outside the city; the city itself was on a small hill and it had once had walls, which had fallen with the rest. And just like the half-oval tower, every door-frame and lintel and most bits of wall had sculpture of leaves and vines and fruit and grass. But everything was broken, and everything was blindingly white, so it was quite some time before we realised that the crunching under our feet and the horses’ hooves wasn’t broken stone but bones, human bones! As if the people had all died at the same time so there was nobody left to bury them and the ravens and vultures had picked them clean. But the bones were all old, hundreds of years I thought. It spooked us people, but the dogs didn’t seem to mind and Tao had to berate one of them who came running with a thigh-bone in its mouth.
The dome was in the middle of the city, and the whiteness seemed to be even whiter there. The boys took one look at the entrance and said “we’ll stay here, this is for women!” and they stayed outside with the little girls. Amre and Asa and I went in, first through a narrow passage and then into the dome itself. It was full of soft light that came in through slits in the dome, and it was full of power, too. I protected myself against it almost without thinking, but Amre let it in and it filled her completely. But I didn’t hear that until later.
In the centre of the temple there was a great statue of the Mother– it had to be the Mother, though she was like nothing I’d ever seen in any place where I’d been. In fact I hadn’t ever seen a statue of the Mother– just her presence at springs and with people. It was carved of red stone with little pink and gold flecks, a large figure of a woman with large everything that made a woman– breasts, thighs, hips, buttocks. She had a shallow bowl on her outstretched hands, and something in there was squirming and making a noise! Asa and I reached it together, and it turned out to be a naked baby boy, crying with hunger. When I took another step to lift him out of the bowl I felt something crunch under my feet– lots and lots of little bones, bones of babies! “Do you think they sacrifice them to the Mother?” I said, and my voice sounded strange under the dome. “You don’t do that!”
I had the boy in my arms now, and I felt rather than saw that Asa wanted to hold him, needed to give her man a boy-child. I put him in her arms and said “Take care of him for us.” “Really?” Don’t you want him, you and Amre?” I didn’t really know what to say, the presence of the Mother was pushing on me so hard that I could hardly think, and I saw Amre on her knees in distress, and what would I do? Then I heard more baby noises behind the statue, and there the Mother had another face, and another pair of arms, and in the bowl on her other hands there was a little baby girl.
I took the squealing girl out of the Mother’s hands and ran –or rather staggered, I was beginning to yield to the pressure– to Amre, and the next thing I knew was that we were all back outside and Veh was comforting Asa, looking grey –Veh, not Asa, Asa was almost as pale as a Valdyan– and Amre and I were holding one another with the little girl almost squeezed between us. It turned out that Veh had come in and got us all out, though he’d said at first that he wasn’t going in. “I may not tell you,” Veh said, looking strained, “this is one of the secrets– the women’s secrets.” Weren’t we Ishey women, then? But Veh wasn’t an Ishey woman of course, not strictly, even though he’d been brought up as a girl. I was shocked, “do the Ishey sacrifice babies to the Mother?” “Well, not often,” Veh said, “only if something is needed very badly– when the Khas drove us out of our cities, I think that’s the last time we did it.” He sounded as if he’d been there in person, but that’s what Ishey sound like talking about things in history. “All the gods have that,” he continued, “every god has two sides. Mazao–” “The hunter and the trader,” I said. Or did he mean that every god also had a terrible side, one that you’d rather not see? I was still confused, and Amre needed me, and the babies needed milk, and my head was full of thoughts and worries.
But then the doctor in me took over and I called to Tao and Mazao, who I could find just outside the city, “Can you find a sheep with a lamb? We need milk for babies.” They were puzzled but said that it wouldn’t be hard. We all left the city then, still dazed, and that didn’t get much better when we tried to explain what had happened. “What will happen now, because the Mother didn’t get her sacrifice?” someone asked, and Veh said “I suppose whoever made the sacrifice won’t get what they asked for.” Well, let them not get what they wanted, the Mother wasn’t going to get the babies!
Then I heard from Tao, “we’ve got a sheep all right, but there’s also a woman who has milk, a bit further on!” But they brought the sheep first, with the lamb, and we milked the ewe and fed the babies sheep milk by soaking a cloth in it. Asa was so proud that she had a boy first– though Veh still thought girls were worth more than boys. Strange, Amre and I had been brought up to think boys were worth more too (though my Valdyan mother had had something to say about that!) but now that we had the little girl neither of us cared one bit.
When we were a bit less shaky I went with Tao and Veh to find the nursing woman. We could see two people a on the east road, both in the Guild of the Nameless, and one was the woman. When we reached them it turned out to be four people, but only two were gifted: three men in threadbare soldiers’ uniforms and a woman in a uniform shirt soaked with milk and a skirt soaked with blood, with a limping horse. We hailed them, and they seemed to think we were the enemy at first –understandable, all of us were dark-skinned and of Anshen– but we could make them understand that we were also going to Rizenay, that we didn’t intend to harm them, and that two of us were apprentice doctors and could do something for the woman’s bleeding. “Was your baby stillborn?” I asked the woman, and she said no but it didn’t live long. I had a sudden thought that perhaps she’d killed it, but I pushed that away. “We have two foundlings who need your milk,” I said, “come with us, we can help you and you can help us!” She was still suspicious, but her man convinced her and they all came back to our camp.
We got her in the wagon –she was called Arvi, which amused our little Arvi no end– and cleaned her up, and then Amre did a really impressive bit of stitching while I kept the blood away. Not that she was pleased, or grateful or anything! But she did consent to feed the babies. She had more than enough milk, even for two. The sheep was walking around a bit confusedly– we didn’t need her milk any more for the babies, and we’d killed and eaten the lamb, but we milked her anyway and use the milk for porridge.
The next morning, when we got up early in order to go to Rizenay, all the horses were gone! And so were the two men who had been with Arvi and Arin. Only the mule was still there. Everybody who could run –Amre and I, and the boys, and Jeran– ran after them, they were easy enough to track with all those horses, and caught up with them a few miles up the road. They drew their swords when they saw us, but they were no match for slings. I don’t know who threw the stones that felled them, I think eventually all of us, and we were all as shaken as Mazao had been when he’d killed the man in Tal-Borin. It wasn’t like the two bandits in the swamp, those had been about to kill us or worse, that was self-defence! But now we’d really killed people. Getting the horses back didn’t make it easier, or less painful.
The road to Rizenay was long and straight and boring– at least compared to the city, or even the swamp with bandits. There were high rocky mountains on our left, and plains with herds of sheep on our right. We went slowly, because of Arvi and the babies and the sheep and especially the lame horse, bitten by dogs much like ours (I thought it had been ours at first, and was already apologising when I realised that it must have been the men from Tal-Varsine). Amre and I talked about a name for our little one– I wanted to do the name-giving the Valdyan way, and I wasn’t sure how to do it, so she stayed “the little one”, but we knew we wanted to give her two names like each of us had two names too, Amre’s mother’s name and my mother’s. Asa and Veh’s little boy didn’t have a name yet either, perhaps they wanted to have a sort of ceremony for that too and needed to be in a safe place for it.
After days or weeks, it was all a great muddle, we saw a little village in the plain, built around a tall white house or tower. A young shepherd greeted us, “you’re the Ishey people, right? We knew you’d be coming. My father(1) invites you to his house!” So we followed him, and it turned out that his father was the lord of the house, and headman of the village. There were friendly people, and stabling for all the horses, and a field for the sheep, and warm baths! I was so grateful that I said to the lord’s daughter who brought us warm water and towels, “it’s so nice to hear someone else’s voice for a change!” and made her laugh. And then there was food –“I hope you like mutton,” the lord said– and stories. It turned out that the queen and doctor Roushan had been here, and told them that the king had stayed behind to hunt bandits in the swamp.
It was only a few days(2) from the village of White Tower to Rizenay. The closer we came to the town, the more apprehensive Jeran grew. “Suppose my parents are dead? Suppose they don’t want me any more?” I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t want him any more, but of course it was possible that they were dead, they must have had the lung epidemic in Rizenay too. “If they’re dead we’ll take you with us, you still have a family!” I said.
From a distance it looked like Rizenay was built on a low hill and the houses were all very low (except for the windmills; there were lots of windmills!) but it turned out that the houses were high, but there was a low earthen wall all around the town. And almost every house had a door on the first floor, too! “Those are the winter doors,” Jeran said, “then the snow is so high!” I could barely believe it. Jeran took us around the town, to one of the windmills, with a house built against it. There were a man and a woman outside the house, working in the vegetable garden –the man with a scarred but friendly face, the woman looking worried– and also a baby just old enough to crawl. Jeran went ahead, and stood there a bit hesitantly, until the woman and saw him and rushed at him and took him in her arms. “Jeran! Is it really you? You’re so big! Arin, look, our Jeran is back!” and then his father also ran to embrace him. It was a long time until Jeran dragged his parents back to meet us. “You must come and stay with us,” they said. “And tell everything! We’ll go and tell the neighbours, have a party!”
In no time the house was full of people, not only all of us, but also all the neighbours who wanted to see Jeran come back and grown a full head, and to gape at all those foreign people. At least these people didn’t call us princesses, at least not to our faces. Lambs were roasted, neighbours brought food and drink, a couple of people had fiddles and flutes, and Jeran’s little sister was crawling underfoot. In the middle of all that suddenly the queen called me with her mind! I was a bit ashamed that we hadn’t announced ourselves yet, but it had been so much more important to take Jeran home. She wasn’t angry, though: “You’re here! Is it nice where you are? Have you eaten already?” “Yes,” I said, “very nice, we had lots to eat and everybody is happy!” “Do you think I could come?” “Yes, I don’t think anybody will object.” And I said to Jeran’s mother that a friend of ours wanted to come too, would that be all right? “Why, of course, any friends of yours are welcome!” And after a while not only the queen arrived, but also Roushan, and all three of the little princes. The queen introduced herself as only Raisse, and said that she was glad to be with normal friendly people instead of the bunch of snobs she’d been forced to have dinner with, “and all alone, too, that idiot I’m married to is in the south fighting the bandits.” Then she settled in a corner nursing the little princess and talking to Jeran’s mother about babies, looking very happy. I don’t think Jeran’s mother knew who her new guest was!
(1) Or perhaps “grandfather”. The shepherd was young (in his teens), the lord of the house was old. Or perhaps it was the Ishey conception of old, early fifties or so, in which case he can very well have had a teenaged son. On the other hand, I rather think he was really old because he got tired quickly and was getting a bit addle-brained.