The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part fourteen)
Night on the open sea often was alight in strange ways. The stars gleamed, clustered in places thick as crystals in a basilisk’s egg. I felt my eyes could drink this light and shine it before me…but the magic could not be performed by wish, and Lotoq my patron god, perhaps disapproved this path of mine. Perhaps his plan for me had been some other, and he found me vain and weak to have left his stronghold.
Lights green and dancing played across the surface of the waves. Egdoah said, “You must not look at them. They will spirit you down to the kingdom below.”
I smiled…I couldn’t help it. “Your sea devils.”
“I change my mind. You, I think, may look…it is for them to fear.”
We might banter, but his superstition did not allow much of this. I saw him try to hide the hand sign by which the northerners warded demons, four fingers out, and the thumb touching the palm.
I slept, as it seemed our rendezvous must take some hours to culminate.
And when the sky lightened, I woke from a dream of talking, talking all around me. I woke reminded I had never resolved my question of weeks past. I had never, after all, cast the Prince’s fortune. I had never cast twice my own. What was I, if I were born in the House of the Dead, but lived? A totem of protection to my charges, one come to earth to bear the sum of those thousand thousand spirits the god Tophe could not examine, in many years’ time, one by one…to learn if they had died in innocence, or with great works undone?
Tophe alone speaks of himself, no other god, not they, will raise his name. And I have heard said always, that one must look into the reflection of a still pool if one dare invoke him, to turn the curse. I thought the god of the dead had spoken to me in this dream. The voices, though, were from one of the Alëenon ships. To my surprise, when I stood and peered from under my skin roof, this had been lashed to ours, and the Prince had boarded.
I saw him with no head covering, hair in the wind; he seemed to me freed, unburdened. He had come to us knowing our language, and knew theirs as well. And his speech with a captain of theirs was confiding. They laughed, as though the joke were half-sad, yet shared. At me, he had always laughed with mockery. The captain…at any rate, a man marked out by his cap, glanced across. And when he saw my head, my plaits hooded in fleece, he invited the Prince to see. And when they had seen together, they agreed on some act, a thing to be done at once.
So with no breakfast, I was pulled from my shelter onto this vessel of the Alëenon. Jute was awake, and at the Prince’s command passed across my basket and the little shrine filled with coins.
“Am I wanted?” she asked.
“No. I am going to make a gift of you, to my kinswoman. She is the wife of Sente Vei.”
This was not for Jute; it was for me, who’d known Sente.
“Salo-vlan, Lord Prince, are you making a gift of me…?”
“It is your wise way of speaking, to turn my words, to praise me with high names. I see your laughter, creature. No. All along, I have had a task in mind…though true, the Alëenon will get the use of you in performing it. You see that this is a mountainous land.”
Mountainous, and cold. I could see and feel, too. The wind blew shoreward; and with no friendly breath of home in it. I shivered after an hour of our slow approach, and some one of the strangers brought me a different sort of skin, thick long fur of a lovely animal, that I would rather have met living.
“You,” I said. And, “Vlan.”
“Ha, ha,” he answered. “Nur. Nur-naache.”
It seemed to me this was, “No, I am nothing.” He understood me a bit, and a bit, I could make out his speech. Travel astonishes one. Here were cousins, an unsuspected pleasure, small dark-eyed people like ourselves, whose language was almost ours.
“What office will they have me fill, can you tell?”
He shook his head and raised a hand. When he returned, after leaping down a ladder, he had a wineskin for me, and bread. “Matemero,” I said. “But, what office?”
“Please, cease to interrogate our friends.”
The Prince shooed the one who had kindly served me. “As I am here to be asked, why should you not ask me? I know you have no fear.”
“Salo-vlan. Lord Prince…” I suppose I teased. He grinned at me, rewarding my mischief. I felt almost in love. For that is power to the powerless, friends. The sun shines, and the flower unfolds. “What office?” I said.
“An escort waits ashore. You will be taken at once. A day or two yet, a company may ride so high before the pass is shut. Wosogo has told you that we mean to seize the citadel there, to rule this highway and all the trade of the east. There is a crown I would have on my head sooner than my father’s. A tollhouse sits before a flat way between two peaks, two warring gods…but at times they lay down their arms. A caravan may cross there. I will show you the place, come with me.”
He shouted an order for our ship to be unlashed, and I saw, giving these things attention, that all the Alëenon fleet were making ready, that many of the Emperor’s men had been put aboard these vessels of our hosts, their soldiers aboard our own.
“Have we an ally in the Alëenon?”
“Trust your comrade as you trust yourself. That is a saying we have.”
He ushered me, drew me round to look to the mountains. And unprepared for it, I was struck a blow. Some person had flown at me, I saw it in a blur, falling backwards.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)