Dancing with the gods

At least Naigha has told her priestess that she doesn’t want them yet.

There was a bright full moon and lots of bright stars, so we could see where we were going and it was quite easy to walk in the night. The dog ran in circles around us and sometimes sniffed my hand. Dayapati was holding my other hand all the time.

When we’d walked quite a long way — it was hard to see how far in the moonlight — I heard strange sounds, “thwack! wheeee! ruffle! plop!” and then a man came out of nowhere, carrying wooden things in his hand that I didn’t recognise. He was large, in rich-looking clothes, with greying hair that went back from his forehead a bit so I thought he must be about fifty. He reminded me a little of Dayapati’s Uncle Uznur except that he didn’t look so Iss-Peranian, or so shifty either. “Is he your uncle?” I whispered to Jerna, but she’d never seen him before. He looked a bit strangely at her, too, as if he’d expected to meet Dayapati and me but not Jerna.

He called to the dog, and it ran away and came back and dropped a big grey-brown bird at his feet.

“Is that a kind of duckgoose?” I asked. It looked a little like one, but it had a different shape of beak.

“A goosegoose,” he said with a grin. “It’s time to have a rest. Come along. My brother is in the wood, over there.”

I was beginning to realise who this was. “I think we’ve met all three of your brothers,” I said. “Timoine sent us here, and the Nameless gave us something white with herbs in, and Archan gave us something sweet to eat.”

“Better call them both by their name,” the man said.

“Anshen.” That was hard to say. “My mother is of Archan.” The man smiled and took us into the wood.

Jerna looked aghast. “There oughtn’t to be a wood here!” But there was, with high trees all around a clearing where (I think) the Nameless — Anshen — was feeding a small fire with sticks. There were also two horses standing under a tree, the first live horses I’d seen in my life (I’ve seen dead horses from ships so I knew what they were), with horns like a narwhal’s on their heads. The dog growled at the horses, but one threatened it with its horn and it backed away.

Our guide (I’m pretty confident now that I can call him Mizran, but then I didn’t dare yet) made a pushing gesture with his hand over the fire and it went out. “Your turn.”

Dayapati and I looked at each other. “Can we? Remember the time we did it with the dry driftwood? Tell it that it’s hot, from below so the heat goes up.”

She nodded and took my hand. “Can you do that?” I asked Jerna. “Then we can do it all together, that’s easier.” But she shook her head, still looking frightened.

We managed to tell the wood that it was hot, there was even a little tendril of smoke where it started to smoulder, but not much more until I suddenly felt as if something had taken me by the shoulders and shaken me and put me back in a different shape, with my feet more firmly on the ground.

“Oh!” I could see what the flame wanted to do, where the heat was going. I pulled it up through the firewood and the fire burned as lustily as ever. I couldn’t tell if the same thing had happened to Dayapati, or even if she’d helped to pull up, but she had a big grin on her face.

While we were working on the fire, the goosegoose had been cleaned and the dog was munching on the entrails at the edge of the clearing. Anshen (I was sure it was him now) hung the bird over the fire. There were growls and barks from where the dog was, and I saw a fox trying to make off with a portion. I grabbed the dog by the hair of its neck, “Foxes get their share! Back off!” Somehow I didn’t want to say Mizran’s name, which I would have if he hadn’t been in the clearing with us.

Goosegoose was as good as duckgoose, a bit fatter and with stronger flavour. And bigger! I don’t know if the gods ate, but all of us girls did. I tried to make sense of what had happened, because I knew I was different but not how, but the gods weren’t helpful, they just said that that would go on happening all my life. But it didn’t feel like a bad thing, learning is fun!

“Can you girls make music?” Mizran asked. “Or sing?”

We could, but only sailor songs, and some were very bawdy! In four different languages, too. We sang all the songs that we remembered, and Anshen took Jerna by the hand and they danced around the fire. Every time there was kissing or lovemaking in a song, Anshen kissed Jerna on the cheek! After a bit of that she stood still and looked hard at him and kissed him back.

Then we must have fallen asleep because we woke up and it was morning. I felt a warm spot on my forehead, as if someone had just given me a big kiss there! The wood was gone, but there were the ashes of the fire with bird bones beside it and a very satisfied-looking dog asleep on the grass. We buried the bones and scattered the ashes, and the place looked almost as if it had never been different.

“What happened?” Jerna asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “you look different, perhaps because you danced with the– with Anshen.”

“Now we’ll surely die tomorrow,” Dayapati said.

“I hope not!” I said. “Just now I’m learning so many new things.”

Dayapati counted on her fingers. “Naha is the only one left. Unless we see the One.”

“You don’t want to see the One!” Jerna said. “Nobody ever has! You can’t see him!”

“But we saw the Mother. Say! Arlyn! Do you think we’re married now? She gave us water!”

“We drank the water, she didn’t pour it over our hands. And we didn’t say any words. Not to each other, anyway.” I hadn’t thought of that at all! “I’d think we can both marry whoever else we like, when we want to.”

We were going through fields now, with more of the bushes with red flowers, and some just like it but with pink flowers. “Those are pretty!” I said. “And they smell delicious!”

“Yes,” Jerna said, “they flower only for a short time but our priestess makes delicious-smelling stuff from them that keeps, and we send that north to Nesh to sell!”

On the way, Jerna taught us to throw stones with a leather strap, a sling. It started out hard but then we got the hang of it and it was very easy, and I hit a hare!

Presently we came to Jerna’s village. People greeted Jerna and looked curiously at the strangers she’d brought, but they didn’t ask any questions. Perhaps they were waiting for her to say something! She didn’t, not until we got to a house that had a little wall around it and around its garden, where lots of nice-smelling herbs were growing. “Aunt Raisse!” she called.

A woman came out of the house, quite young, younger than Mother, with snake heads on her hands like our priestess of Naigha had (but our priestess had had bits of snake around her wrists as well and this one didn’t). “Visitors!” the priestess said. “Where have you come from?”

“From the southeast,” we said, and pointed. Of course this priestess didn’t believe us either. “But nobody lives there! We’re the furthest out from Ryshas, there’s nothing beyond here.”

“We live there,” I said, “well, until we left home and came here.” And we explained that everybody who lived in our village who hadn’t been born there had come from a wrecked ship and that the gods had brought us here. The priestess could sort of understand the first, but not the second. “Better come in and tell me everything,” she said. “At least Naigha doesn’t want you yet, or she’d have told me.”

Half the villagers had followed us, but the priestess let only me and Dayapati and Jerna in and made the dog lie in the doorway to keep watch.

“Jerna,” she said, “you know where I keep the jug of wine. Please get it, and four cups.”

“Four! Me too?”

“This time, yes.”

Then we told the whole story, in bits and pieces because each of us remembered different things and thought different things were important. But the priestess was good at listening. When I said that I hadn’t been afraid of Mizran at all, that he was like I imagined my father if he was just an ordinary Valdyan father and not Khas, she said “You’re Khas?”

“My father and my brothers are,” I said, “but my mother is from Essle.” I don’t think she could have seen it from the colour of my skin, because Dayapati and I and even Jerna were all brown from the sun, though Dayapati was darkest.

“I do think that I’m not the Raisse you’re looking for,” the priestess said at the end. “You should go to Valdis, to the capital.”

I knew that that was a very big city. “How many Raisses are there in Valdis?” I asked.

The priestess laughed. “Lots. But only one who is in the centre of everything.”

She meant the queen! She was sending us to the queen!

“And you’d better go with them, Jerna,” the priestess said. “You’ve been touched too.”

That would be fun, with the three of us together! Jerna was nice and she knew a lot of things we didn’t know.

“You can sleep in the temple tonight,” the priestess said, but Jerna wanted to take us home to meet her family first.

The first one we met was a very tall man with very light hair. That was Jerna’s father, who was from Rizenay. Mother had once shown us where that was in her book with pictures of the world, and told us that there was ice and snow there half the year. I’ve never seen ice and snow but I know that it’s when water is so cold that it won’t move!

Jerna’s mother was small and round and as friendly as Jerna, and there were little brothers and sisters, and a young man who was Jerna’s eldest brother sitting at a table in the house with an open book beside him and writing on a slate.

We had to tell them everything too, of course. When I was trying to explain once again how ships were wrecked and everything and everybody washed up on our beach, Jerna’s brother turned back two pages of his book and pushed it over to me. And there was a picture of our part of the world just like in Mother’s book so I could point to it on the picture and it was a lot easier!

“Go kill a piglet,” Jerna’s mother said to the young man, “take one of the big ones!” And then she gave me the thing she’d been sewing on ever since we’d come in, a skirt of rough brown fabric that came to my ankles and fit nicely round my waist with a drawstring!

“A winter skirt! Thank you!”

“I can make one for you tonight,” she said to Dayapati, “all you girls are about the same size.” She started on the second skirt right away.

“One more question,” Jerna’s father asked, “what have you girls done with our daughter?”

“We didn’t do anything!” I said, and Dayapati, “Anasagga danced with her.”

Who?” But Jerna’s mother knew who that was, “Anshen.”

“So now you’ve got another thing your brothers can envy you,” her father said. But the brothers protested, “we don’t envy her! She’s a girl!”

The pig was roasting in the yard now, and all the neighbours seemed to have business here. Then Jerna’s father — well, he did something with his mind, I suppose, and it became very quiet. “We have guests,” he said, “but it’s not a village feast!” I could hear the birds, and the fire, and the sizzle of the pig fat that dripped in it, and Jerna’s little sisters giggling in the house, but still it was as quiet as if there were no people here.