The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part six)
I had slept at my first home in profoundest silence…fairly it might be said, that of the grave. Childhood dreams did not meander here from sound to sound, weaving a story of footsteps, caterwauling, morning birdsong; rather mine, I could now suppose, had been the god’s teaching. I knew I understood his language, that I could hear him at times, and receive his mysteries, as he chose to confide them.
Not so on my mountain, such a silence, though I and Cuerpha were at first the only beings at the toll house. From the deep earth that faint song in my ear always, the iron seeds astir with their rising power. And nature is not silent, excepting where the old woman had kept her house, in ash and barrenness, in that time after the wrath of Lotoq.
Our camps were never still.
The Prince’s army did not settle, but that they set their watches, and sent their scouts along the road ahead and into the countryside. Raiding parties afterwards, from the holdings thereabouts to carry away the cattle, sheep, hens, the stored grain, the butts of wine. We remained in the Emperor’s lands, and he permitted his mercenaries right of pillage.
I said that I was free. I could come and go…not at will, but so far as I did not cross the Prince’s will. And being without status (though wealthy, had they known, for Pytta’s great charity); being nameless, untied, but at the same time a talisman…something like, I’d decided, a wild lion taken up company with the soldiers, walking their road alongside them.
I was left alone, observed with both pleasure and wariness, avoided.
I felt eased finally, this night, of the abuse done my limbs in training against Mumas. That, and only a day between, and the riding, hours upon hours of it. I am grown stronger, I told myself. I lay awake and regretting that I’d bedded down to doze, long enough to have passed my chance for a meal. I rested my head on my hands, but for the torches could see no stars.
Who would have advised Mumas?
I tried to put words in the voice, the mind, so far as I could enter it, of Lady Nyma. Now the Prince has ordered you to fight, you will have to…
Merely, have to?
Did she ever entertain dishonor, as Stol did, where weight of consequence falls unequal, almost dishonorable itself—everyone’s hope for life being equal?
The Prince would then find his sport in the chase. Mumas a fugitive, stripped of citizenship, made slave and sent to the galley.
Or would he beg mercy, on some ground invented…illness, a distant, dying relation? I wished I’d thought of these questions, and that I’d seen Lady Nyma in Cime’s house, to put them to her.
Creature, why do you trouble me? she would say.
Because, Vlanna, there is no wisdom to answer this. The Giver offers me nothing. Would you have counselled him to fight? Would you have counselled him to lie? If I had gone to the Prince…
It must be his laughter, our great god, and behind this, his answer. I could not, of course, have gone to the Prince, told him, punish me for reneging on a vow, for shame, disloyalty. Ask the Balancers to torment me with Lom’s wraith…I will not fight. It can’t matter. What you desire my fate to be, so it must…how can I transgress, then, Vlan? Mumas, you could not seize from his house, lay bonds upon… But the foundling?
The world has not graced me. For this, I have all the world’s grace. I may spare even my enemy…
And the Prince might admire this. He might care for none of it, yet want me for the games. I hadn’t then, but could think now of glossing my reputation, while bestowing on Mumas favor, crushing him a little…a little more…by winning for him his life.
But the only lesson to be gleaned at this hour was, how heedless we are. How foreseeably familiar snares appear along our path, how eager we are, for that, to step in them.
Rising upon a morning when he saw…
I saw, degradation as a word made glyphic, as an actual grave chamber, that hollowed place our people by custom made, a dome of clay tiles open at the top for conversation, for gifts on feast days that our dead might share.
We loved our dead; we felt that, like grandparents, they took to their seats at the last, awaiting visitors, as was an elder’s due, but sat in kindness—sage advisors rewarding remembrance, asking no more. But well-wishers, too, who loved us when fortune loved us not, when the lordly men and women loved us not.
Mumas, though…forty winters old and not wise.
Not visited, as he had no kin and neglected his own ancestors. He might have seen himself a figure underground, hearing footfalls that only passed above his head. He would have killed me, and I had tried so hard, at such disadvantage, the crowd swayed to my cause…
A victory he could not live down. Or, he would have been killed by me…
For Lotoq is all-powerful.
Lotoq, or some god, or some demon, put this whisper in Mumas’s ear, here is all you can salvage of your place, as by rights it would be, all the joy you can snatch from the jeerers, from the Prince, from Lady Nyma and the Knights of Caeluvm…
And from the slave, the foundling, the hateful creature…
But Mumas, I have wished you well, only that.
That night I asked myself, is there any hopeful wish, is there any kindness towards others, of such purity to stop us hurting them?
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(2019, Stephanie Foster)