The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part four)
A long ride over country, how next I found myself directed, gave contemplation of the end of Mumas…what I had done to him…free play in my mind. For I suffered a bit, without knowing what had befallen me. It was best to think of anything other than pain and malaise, and I was among indifferent companions. They offered food that I didn’t want; they offered drink that I did. Neither answer brought rebuke, nor coaxing.
No one, on that day of the contest, had had further use for me. And so, confused, certain with each step towards Cime’s house I offended the more unforgivably, I returned. Stol and Larsa were not there; my pallet was, and I lay on it. I was only tired. Then I woke, after a time, to hear a conversation below the window…my friend the Prince’s deputy, and Elberin.
“There have been signs, Wosogo. Everything had grown, lush, seeming a wonder…that the soil could so soon become fertile. The strange trees, though I believe those, they have among the hills you are about to cross… And so, if it pleases your lord, he will say the wind had delivered them. It is true.”
Elberin spoke this last, as cutting short a digression, affirming again a thing discussed. So was his manner.
The other, by name or rank Wosogo, said, after some noise of the metal things he wore on his face, a vigorous nod: “The foundling carries fortune. Such as plans, may I say, your Lotoq…I mean…” Jingling again.
“You mean, we were premature. My wisdom was not sufficient…well, I will never claim to know the mind of the Giver. But, I had warned them. He rumbles, it is not always ill-omened. Or not for those of us in this present life. They would have the creature sent away. And now the lake of sweet water has gone sour.”
My heart lifted, as I dared think Elberin had come to take me back, and that that would solve my crisis…
Or, rather, I had inflicted something of crisis on the city. Making my way, I’d seen how eyes were averted, while hands played at a gesture of appeasement. As with the people when I had been Elberin’s disciple. I had brought at my birth too much of taxas, the gods’ dark designs, and they feared to have me among them.
“I will call you Foundling. That is what many say.”
I took this, the voice of Wosogo, as a summons. I pushed from my pallet and went to the steps. If he had business with me, then perhaps I had but changed hands again.
“You are not wearing the only clothes Cime Decima has given you?”
And this was Elberin’s greeting for me, after so many months. I could have made a joke of the riposte…must I not be wearing the only clothes I had? But my old master, now and again, had used the back of his hand when he thought I’d answered him ill.
I was used to it, shouldering such treatment as I got, but before the Prince’s man I preferred to stand on dignity. “You know, Vlan, that I am yours, or any free person’s…”
I bent my knees to Wosogo. “…to be commanded. Can I make myself better suited to your purpose, I shall.”
“Well, there,” Elberin said. “What you will find yourself contending with. I believe the Prince calls it clever, and amuses himself regardless, with our superstitions, our little customs. This one will never show true humility. The words will always betray these forays into out-reasoning, so that thus, having got just what you’d asked for, you will be somewhat at disadvantage.”
He made to leave. Then, turning back, so that I could see he spoke to me, and see I was not worth a meeting of the eyes, said:
“Creature, your road goes one way, and mine another. And so we part.”
“As the Giver wills.”
He disliked this. More of my trouble, was his thought, expressed in the grunt before his pace became resolute, and the back of him passed Cime’s gate. For I could have said only goodbye. I could have said nothing…he would not have cared. I had mentioned Lotoq; and of course, for just that effect, just that small warning.
Trouble, no doubt.
But for Cime, for Pytta, Sente, for Stol or Larsa, my heart’s goodbye would have been sincere. Would be, as I learned at once.
“The Prince will have us start the road tomorrow. It is winter soon, and we have all this land to cross to the sea, where we are going.”
Wosogo had a frown of interior work on his face, and I supposed his fluency in our language ebbed, as he measured in his own what he wished to say next.
“The Prince makes you free. There are fortunes to be told on every man who journeys. Every beast, horse and oxen, every sun’s rise and set. It is always with our people to be at odds with the sea. That is an old curse upon us.”
“What sort of journey is this? Why are we going?”
“I…journey. But I think I have not the word. Balbaec is a town of the Alëenon, all they trade by the mountain road brought down from the fortress city. No one passes the gate…and there is on the plain a great bazaar at all times. Men even from over the mountains to the west.”
He put a picture in my mind, or the Giver did, and I saw walls buttressed in living rock, a puzzle of tunnelways, as our own small fortress boasted—but sinister, breathing, by means of cruel engines in the labyrinth above, bursts of fire; a great upwards road flanked in pines, a garden terrace in the clouds, planted in mosses…its captive birds eagles. And far below, a fertile rift between chains of peaks, terraced in vines, a green land with a thousand bright tents. I knew of nothing I’d seen to account for the invention. I knew also that the Prince hoped by some means to break this fortress, claim it, bottle all its lord’s trade into his own coffers.
“Why, though,” I said. A minute or two might have passed.
The look Wosogo gave me was as a man’s facing death in battle, who finds in his hand a spell-bound weapon. Thrilled, grim in purpose, both.
“Why so urgent?”
“That is a matter of the Emperor.”
(2019, Stephanie Foster)