The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part seven)
Our road curved round the flank of the terrible mountain. Boulders sat here on earth where they’d fallen, house-sized, sconced and beaked, many…rude carvings of giants’ heads spat so-formed, from the mouth of the Giver. They stared, and we, on this stretch of evil reputation, averted gazes, fingered amulets. We felt their anger shiver underfoot, these wardens of Lotoq. We intruded at a helpless pace, worming forward stop-start as an army half on foot, half-mounted, drawing its wagons, its scavengers, its peddlers…of trinkets and bodies…must.
But myriads upon myriads of stones too had fallen, of size a slave or prisoner could carry. This is an efficient labor, dozens to lift them onto sledges, better privileged drivers of horses to whip these to a fort site. It is less efficient to chisel planes from the soft blue rock abundant here, and fit them with care, larger to smaller.
And I suppose, not efficient at all, when the rocks are of the god, and granite. The quarriers had an ingenious device, a thing new to my eyes. Wood for my people was a dear commodity, our metal-working land barren of old forest, and so we made machinery from rock and clay, from water, wind, and woven ropes.
Within a natural crevice was laid a chute, lined with glazed tiles. To protect these, women poured a stream from urns at a gentle angle, a trickle to speed one rock to the base, where was placed another. The first or both would split at the impact.
Thankful (half-thankful, it might be) that rain lowered on the seaward horizon only, far behind, we left the dusty track. Going by thoroughfare, it must be dust or mud. Our captain’s messengers who sped in relay along our flanks, did not hail the workers. The workers did not shout or point.
For it was a thing known for days, that we approached the fort. The stonebreakers were weary and we were weary. The way was uphill, the cadence beaten by the drummers unflagging. But this that parted from the track was a true road, paved; the men could fan out, doubling our pace forward.
Circling the slope…a long, long, gentle incline, making west…were earthworks. If the fort were attacked, the general would disperse his legions amidst these defenses; thus the road served to the limit of them.
And we were inside, by right. For having set foot upon his hill we were under the general’s protection now. Yet the earthworks had no archers mounted, no sentries.
Our country was at peace.
Under the wall ahead, we saw the open gate. The captain sent his seal-bearer with two other bearers, one of the Prince’s banner, one the Emperor’s. We drew up our reins, while a ceremonial parley began.
And then a messenger, cantering back aside the ranks, met my eyes—still from a distance, which suggested nothing to me. He carried something bundled under an arm; he steered his steed with his legs, as men who fought with spear and arrow learned. He halted, catching Cuerpha by an ear.
My pony expected well of people, was a contented beast and could not be startled. Only the smoke of fires made him raise his head, keen, more than alarmed.
I asked the man, “How may I serve you, Mero?”
The chance was there, but he did not know our speech. He gave me the bundle, and pointed to the gate.
I allowed my mind to be preoccupied with pace…not eager, not laggardly, with solemnness in my eyes, respect for what they wished me part of. To convey this to them, as I did not know what role I played. I hadn’t unfurled the cloth, banner, flag…garment, possibly. My doubts of this choice were strong by the time I reached the general’s men.
“Charmer,” they said to me.
One said it to me, the others murmuring. Reader, you will not suppose I had been paid a compliment. The name was given to the wandering caster of lots and spells; to many, it meant charlatan.
“Mero,” I said. “How may I serve you?”
“Dress yourself. You are to see the general.”
The general saw me, spoke to me, called me Charmer as well. He wanted the chore of greeting done. “I will give you what you need. You will ask for whatever lacks.”
He bowed, saying so, and left me.
You see that I was fallen between authorities. I did not doubt the Prince himself had directed what his deputy to me instructed. While here, for my new overlord found me, or the need to accommodate me, distasteful, I had none to order me about, no Elberin or Cime.
Seated in my chamber, I sorted tiles, and counted of my tablets broken ones. (There was in cracks and chips no omen, none I had been taught. Yet never would I lay such before a poor seeker, who surely would feel himself cursed.)
I had a servant. I apologized to her and began again, apology earning me a hard glance of contempt. “Jute, I don’t know if I am expected to wear this.”
A high-collared cape with a fringed edging had unrolled itself from the bundle. I knew every sort of office-holder in our land wore his or her dignity in cloth, in capes, in sashes, robes. The general had said I would dine on his couch. The great ones reclined at dinners in suirmats only, to comfortably glut, letting juices fall as they would.
She answered, in the accents of Wosogo. “How could I tell you?”
She had been brought to our land captive. Once, the Emperor’s fortunes won smiles from the gods, and his legions swarmed the North, the Prince’s country, seizing plunder and slaves. My servant did not merely wait on me; Jute was to tell me what the Prince’s men said, tell them what fate I read for them.
A thankless and frightening extra duty…I pitied her that.
For these mysteries, the being steeped in them, so much luck of ill and good escaping bounds, must confer a taint. Or I supposed this superstition to account for it…as those who tend the dying are feared for carrying home the sickroom air.
I wanted no mastery over her, but I wished to make her useful. “Jute, what have you seen of custom at table, in this house?”
Would she lie?
In an army stronghold, few who serve or fetch are not soldiers of low rank. I expected this woman had done every chore, at every beck and call, and could answer me.
“I do not own a suirmat. I would need to have one spared..by one of the general’s retainers, perhaps. Elsewise, I may enter his hall…to be stared at no doubt, wearing this cape they have given me. If I am wrong, you will tell me, but I know a little of banqueting. Now, I suspect I am a novelty to these men, that I unnerve them a bit. They may laugh. I forgive laughter. You see I have no great status in the world…I am not much more than the charmer they call me.”
All this I told her, even-voiced and eyes on my work.
“Do you bid me bring you the suirmat?”
Canny, these northern people. I must show myself good as my word. “Please do.”
She gave another of her angry looks—for the “please”.
Alone, I weighed temptation. I might cast my own fortune. I could see something honorable in this, if I were pledged to brutal truth. I would sow mayhem, play havoc with happy lives, while holding myself immune. I drew to center before me one of the broken tablets. I etched on it a simple wheel of life.
I laid out tiles, and turned that of the hub.
It was not the Raven. It was the Counsellor.
“Giver, may I not earn your favor? You play your jokes on the Prince, as on the Emperor. Yes, I think it. You will correct my error, Aantahah, Salo-Lotoq. This people, or this place, for Alëenon is a strange word to me…their own prince will displace ours, and I am to be the instrument of his undoing. I, whom he believes his charm. You will correct my error, Aantahah, Salo-Lotoq.”
I turned the tile for the First Hour of the Sun.
It was Raven. It could not be, of course, though the god had smiled this mystery upon me. For the First Hour of the Sun was the birth sign, and here I sat, born well living and not dead.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)