The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part thirteen)
I approach the place I was put ashore…the place where my fortunes changed, and I understood that to the Prince I was slave after all. Or disregarded by him, thought without value, for I had not yet passed a test he had in mind. And if I could not pass, his mistrustful heart would see me a humbug, a clever pretender.
Or, there may be more truth in this—that he saw me as one gaining power, whom he preferred by his men be forgotten. But the test, without boasting I say, was beyond the achieving of any ordinary postulant, sent to the tollhouse to beg the gods’ mercy.
I exacted my price in time.
Yet, for that I did approach, I will tell you more about the northerners.
I could not end the tale of Escmar…who had relinquished her name, and was given a trial of her own to learn of what new name she might be deemed worthy.
Ships were cried by the lookouts. We squinted into a setting sun and made out the bulks of them, and the masts spiking black against orange, the sails reefed. We sailed with the wind ourselves, and coming towards us these rode the waves, the oars dragging them along their course. Which was to intercept. The soldier sprang to his feet and was away, and soon a great traffic of others passed my shelter, crouching to drop coins in the little shrine I’d made…
For of our people, few could be easy flouting Aeixiea, goddess of comeuppance.
At any crossroads, or by the hearth of any hostel, was placed such a vessel, made like a hut, with a conical roof and a ring of small windows. Setting forth in the morning, or passing by a place of destiny, the wise would appease her, the foolish be marked by her.
And what among the Alëenon, I asked myself, was I to do with so many coins?
“Nur-elom, wait,” Egdoah said.
The gesture of his hand showed he meant not stay where you are, but that a thing would happen, and I would by this understand…
The reason he did not himself brace for battle. The sailors began to pull on the ropes, to shorten the sails and slow our progress. It became clear, confusing, angering to the Emperor’s men, that the northerners would meet these ships—by night, no less—and not outrace them.
Did we, in our country, lay siege to a walled city, or make to waylay an enemy ship, there were elites among us. That you understand, I mean among the Emperor’s soldiery. They were called Asouta, and these were women. It was tradition, the advantage lying in litheness and quickness, as you may recall Stol had said.
The great gift of a fighter, of Pyrandtha the Knight.
Our Asouta needed no cumbersome ladders to leap walls. In the war games I had seen two mounted, with a sling of sorts laced to their right arms, and a third, given the speed of the horses, and the strength of the riders, fly…so it seemed almost…to a height astonishing. But this was only one of their tricks. The knife was their weapon, and very quick too, with this, when first they vaulted to the enemy’s redoubt. And by the Asouta were archers dispatched, and gates opened.
But the northerners wanted no women mixing among the men.
I had asked Jute, “The Prince’s wife, and some of the others of the nobles…?”
And because she sat with an air, as though I offended or trespassed, I said more plainly, “It was my understanding that the men would follow…”
I chose to say Vlana. I did not know this woman’s name or what her people called her, whether my choice were high enough. “It was my understanding the men would follow Vlana, if the Prince were killed.”
“Because, her father was Wolgan.”
“Who are these on the ships…are they Alëenon? Will they be our escort to their city?”
“I don’t see why you think I would know. What have I had to do with it?”
But I asked, both to see if she could answer, and to think a bit, in the silence that always came before her speech to me. I decided to be stupid. Jute found me despicable, in her queenly way, and could not be free of me, and could not disobey me. She must answer, and I could well bear with stony looks and clipped words.
“The Wolgan have godly powers, do they? They are descendants of some deity?”
“You don’t like that sort of story.”
Did I not? She assumed much. But I knew something of the northerners’ legends…
And they were not pretty, as my little fable of Escmar, and their gods did not forgive. Errant lovers were cast into cold prison, to grope in blindness, to know themselves failed, however courageous, however mere children of misfortune. While our realm of the dead was only a shadowed land of mists…
From which many souls had pleased the dark god Tophe, to be granted their freedom. “I don’t ask for one. I only ask, are you yourself Wolgan?”
She seemed lying. I ventured, as I had when guessing Wolgan a clan name and not the father’s (though he might be Wolgan Wolgan…some of the northerners were called such things), to suppose she counted herself banished.
Pride, pride, you are a foolish people, I wanted to say. Still it was of use to know that family lines were all to them. They could deny themselves help and young men die for it…
It was not a woman they feared; it was the vulgar, the low-born.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)