Authority Weighs In: Sixth Tourmaline (part one)
Authority Weighs In
They needed to sit here, tented, wrapped in white skins.
The skins had landed with a laugh, a bundle susurrating into freshly fallen snow, breaking the ice crust just after, hurled from some unsuspected place overhead. The Hidtha fleered at them for getting caught this way. The reflective wraps, the fluorescent orange pop-up shelter, at least met the G.R.A. army handbook’s recommendation for surviving a squall, for being found by rescuers.
To Herward’s eyes, no distance mediated itself between flakes, so much casting of light from one to another, such busyness in the air, that he saw grey, only grey. But the Hidtha, as Mary said (and Mary knew more than he), could read this light, its finesses. They were having an ordinary hunting afternoon, and the squall to them was no squall at all.
She was talking about voting rights; voting rights the mission that had brought the Wainwrights here…to whom the Council of Four would restore these, the injustice of their assessment few yet deserved them. Delegate status must make a difference between one person and another. The Council was silent thus far on this corrupting question. Influence in the Jocelyn era had been everything, and rife.
“David was so funny.”
She’d said this, and wanted to go rummaging to prove it, and Herward had stopped her. He’d have stopped her talking at all—he cared very little for Mary Wainwright’s preoccupations—but couldn’t let her sit, holding an open notebook (journal, she would call it), eyes filling. Gloved hands, in this cold, belonged under layers of blanket and pelt. His own eyes, and Byrnes’s, watered in any case.
“I go over in my mind how we did the rounds in those days. Frederick would always take us to the meeting houses in the districts the resistance controlled. We tiptoed around the floor…all the papers they would have laid out in stacks… You know, not to flutter them up.”
You, Herward thought. Mary, even now, over fur boots, was wearing one of her long skirts.
“The Ftheorde came.”
“Good thing,” Byrnes muttered.
“They let him through as he liked…he was brokering a role for the Utdrife. He wanted Palma to not recruit them, you know. The G.R.A. would have crossed the mountains, and taken the Peninsula, too, if they’d had that excuse. Poor man. So I try to think, was Anton ever there? I wouldn’t have known he was Anton, so would I have noticed him? When David…” Here her voice caught.
Corporal Byrnes, whose back was against Herward’s, the three of them conserving body heat, gave a nudge with her shoulder. He could make a vivid enough picture of her face. She’d whispered it to him already.
“When…David…” Small cough. Pious eye-roll.
Well, what was grief? Did it discount anything real Mary felt, that she had mannerisms…that anyone forced into her company could act them? Anton might be dead. Herward searched his heart for something that could stir at this news. And what if Byrnes were killed…or what might she feel if he were killed?
Voices rose outside the tent flap. Someone, with the toe of a boot, or with a fist, punched two or three times at this, then seemed to try a knife on the fabric. They spoke to each other, a gang of them growing, all antic, excited as if they’d run some wild animal to the ground. They might be tribesmen, not Utdrife, in which case Herward might gain from Mary’s slight celebrity. She knew the Ftheorde, had with him some intimate rapport.
But Palma said this was true.
Byrnes had drawn her pistol. Herward motioned to her not to show it. Her rival Hyde, the only friend who shared her rank, went around the base saying, “Just take as many of the bastards out, going down, as you got bullets.”
Herward had never heard that the Hidtha culture, the loose clan of Utdrife in particular, sentimentalized death. They behaved as though they did not understand it, that there was such a thing.
They would die, and kill too, in a frenzy.
“Hrithar getoht-acht eart Ceöld?”
He understood this was an insult—that, he ought to say, they meant it so. That he was being counted in with the two women. A double insult, if to the Hidtha only a woman would find it cold. Otherwise the hunters spoke too quickly, the difficulty in following their language, when your acquaintance with it had been only training. Vonnie had an ear tuned by her father’s teaching, and playful, had abused Herward’s trust in this way, when he hadn’t known, and couldn’t have discerned, hitha and hithar.
Mary answered. “Than getoht-acht?”
She’d asked only, in the short grammar a fluent speaker could feel at ease with, do you think so? But women, among the Hidtha, did not answer, even to joke, if the answer challenged in some way. And so the men, for this minor prompt, roared laughter, delighted with Mary.
“Utkom than?” One said it, then others, perhaps four or five.
But you know, she told them, it’s too cold, for me, an overlander. Is there a word you are able to carry to the Ftheorde?
Authority Weighs In
See more on Tourmaline Stories page
Authority Weighs In (part two)
(2017, Stephanie Foster)