The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part five)
Cuerpha was my gift from Cime, my pony, his saddle and tackle.
Pytta came to me, and said, “I should not. You, who know, know we have been warned, and by a brother of the Emperor. Word spreads far and wide, young fascination. You would not have thought how much trouble! But, however, I think your trouble is sometimes mischief. Yes…I think the Giver designs more upon you than you will humbly admit. Not good, my dear!”
She teased now, a bit arch with the dignity of motherhood.
I smiled, and she said, “Perhaps you will come by great fortune. I have none of the gift, but I fear for you.” Blushing then. “I’m sorry. To speak of luck, when you are riding off tomorrow. Curse me!”
“This,” she said.
And left me. And so I found this, the bundle, to be a folded vest of fleece. She’d taken of her jewels and given me chains in fat links, rings with the green and red stones most prized.
She’d sewn these, to silently keep their places…
And why… Perhaps to Pytta’s mind, it was sentiment.
She had thought the cloth, with the story of the lovers, held Lom’s memory. I found the memory harsh. I found the rebuke (though His, not hers) deserved.
I laced them, my trinkets, by which I might bribe advantages, into a pouch, made fast so that it would always be under my belt.
Stol, also, had put in my basket his bag of game pieces. A board I could craft…with a knifepoint and level patch of earth. Would it be a challenge? Teaching the game, finding others to play with me.
Wosogo was with his prince. The captain of our mission, having duties of command, had not been chosen to instruct me. For that burden, I mean, and for knowing any word of my language. But one of our company did, a master of intendance, who kept most with his wagons at the rear. His understanding was less than Wosogo’s, but he would pass me, trotting from rear to fore, and when he passed, would grip Cuerpha’s halter, grin down at this small-statured creature.
“Far there.” Flinging a hand.
And today another gesture, removal of an object from a bag. I made to reach behind me, wondering.
No, he shook his head. “Vlan seh’le.”
He gave a shrug. He questioned.
“The Emperor’s seals, yes. There is a lord, a general of the province. No…let me not say province…”
(It was a misconstruction I had fixed, never having cause to unfix, at an age when provinces, city-states, principalities, sovereign nations, had been all one to me.)
He laughed, a bit knowing.
My taking the word back a way of giving insult, he seemed to guess. I would, on my chaotic path, stir trouble on our borders next, dropping unwitting hints, sowing confused enmities.
Emphatically, I shook my head. This too brought laughter.
The general,” I said, “will receive the seals, and he will give us his hospitality. We will spend the night inside his walls.”
I was earnest, and caring enough to try at this, he threaded out sense—his face showed it—from seals, give and night. He would have ridden on then, but I’d taken a notion…
Of a thing imperative. We were to cross land and sea. This journey, this venture of plunder, as Wosogo would wish to correct me, would be a long one.
I patted Cuerpha’s neck. “Brei!” I pointed to Cuerpha’s neck, and spoke our word for pony again, with that same brightness.
He patted his own mount’s neck, and raised his eyebrows. “Habba!”
Now he did spur onwards, and I hoped I had learned…
Horse, and not the name of his horse. The beginnings of a language with alike no name I knew of, and no alphabet in which I could note it down.
The general’s land was far yet, as my friend said…and so we camped.
I was free, I had been told so. Wosogo had given me nothing as token of this. Slaves freed by their masters in our country had—I’d been prepared to endure it—the lobes of the ears clipped… For no ambition could this be forged, done with a ring of sharpened brass, in the hands of one, and a hammer; a block held in place by a second.
I had the luck then, if my luck held. I felt the gods might ignore Lady Pytta’s error, else that their irony (always they prefer irony) must do me good. I would mix among the small and the great, and never be so low in their eyes as an ex-slave, bearing his mark, and only nominally free.
Cuerpha’s coat and hooves must be tended when we came to our night’s rest. I would inch behind others at the hay wagon, fill my arms with the clutches that dropped from theirs. I had felt, sliding from the saddle three nights so far, weary, cold, weak on my feet. I resented none of my good beast’s needs, but I resented, somehow, that this was a task.
I could be tempted, bedeviled by an envious imp, to think it…
That the Prince, needing my help—to strengthen his men, bolster with certainty their wavering superstition, call by the gods’ verdict the venture blessed, might have made my comfort someone else’s chore.
It was only temptation, Reader. I set the thought down at this date to belay that same envy. Of demonic spirits, quick, as we know, to strike at pride. Thus, I do not conceal from you the faults of my nature. No, I had no servant; I had little of will, but I did this work, then rolled in my blanket to sleep.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)