The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part fifteen)
The Prince raised me to my feet, while Jute made display of fretting.
“Deliver me,” she whispered.
These words among astonishing clucks, and apologies, no less, her hands straightening my clothes, patting at the wineskin, which by luck had not burst.
“May my servant, who you see is so attached to me, not keep her place? Is there no other gift for the Lady Darsale?”
“Erjuta ohn knows well there is no comparable gift.”
She spun, and would have leapt again. The waters of the harbor teemed with boats. All this while I had wanted only to look and take it in, the landing of the fleet… The city whose white buildings shone in the sun, rising on terraces of rock that marched from the mountains to the sea.
“Might the gift…”
I knew of nothing more I could do. They’d caught Jute, who would for this passion, whatever its cause, have destroyed herself. Would she yet, left unattended…was this northern affair so not to be yielded upon…?
“Might the gift be postponed, promised for another time?”
“Why do you suppose not? Let me see you exercise your own gift.”
“Darsale carries a kingdom with her to her marriage. Lord Sente wants no part of it…that is not divination, but a thing you have marked yourself, and will use to his regret one day. But the tide turns, does it not, my Lord Prince? The kingdom was Jute’s, she was taken by the Emperor’s mercenaries. How many years ago, I cannot guess. The Lady Darsale is her young sister. They will scarce have known each other…and, I think, had been reared in the houses of different mothers. This despair of Jute’s is humiliation. But among your people I see a satisfaction in such endings. You are too proud to bargain with Fate. You are pleased to see it fall harshly on one even of your own house. There, Lord Prince.”
“Ah. We are very sober now. Perhaps Darsale will be kind.”
“And Jute will despise kindness because she does not ask for it.”
I heard a sob. It had left my mind, in this exchange, that she heard me speak of her.
“Away with that one,” the Prince said.
Then himself he took off, striding for the prow.
Jute’s hands were bound, and the men who held her arms, moved her to the ladder. I sent my servant a steady look, not a smile. What I wished her eyes to see was, I will not forget. Comes a time when I can help in some way, I will call it my duty…trouble myself, even do I rise to any height in this world. This magic too, to deliver thoughts heart to heart, was only within the power of the gods.
Trust me, Jute, or not.
My attendant among the Alëenon returned. He bent for my basket.
I waved a hand and pinched its edge, wanting not to be served any longer. Our tussle came to a standstill at once, for he was polite. But keeping hold, he explained a thing, made single-handed gestures…he and I, his hand and rapid words, a few that rang familiar, told…he and I, and others would sail yet, up the coast. Yes, to my bitter disappointment, I was not to set foot on land. I was to drop down a knotted rope to a rowing boat. This vessel bore a sort of housing at the front, a deck for the oars below and behind—and my pony, Cuerpha, forgotten by me this last day, I saw toss his head. None else of him could be seen. His shared stall was a crib at back of the cabin; two other ponies were there, pack animals of the general’s.
Our picking a way north through winds and currents and tiny outposts where stores were kept under care of lonely guardsmen, has no lesson in it, and I will not linger here. We rode, six of us, through twenty-one sunrises, an unslackening pace, and four of the riders were not Alëenon. They were traders, I thought myself to understand, of the race of the citadel. This by the word of Moth, my friend.
Moth had nothing much other to say to me. But he had said this:
“The tollhouse keeper is always alone.”
He tried as well to convey the fear of the place his people had, the unwelcome awe with which they prepared to regard me, for that I was sent to this task.
It is only the Prince who chooses me, not the gods, I’d said in return.
I was hurt, though my common sense warned—the Prince is not your ally. And if he should be…
Well, you have it from his own mouth. Never trust him. But cocooned from conversation, by urgency, ignorance, winter’s threat…I nursed pain. He ought to have bid me luck, finished the advice Jute had interrupted…said goodbye. As we climbed, snow began to blow in our eyes and blot the horizon, while the crushing peaks loomed dark grey. Certainly they were angry gods, worthy of each other, affronted at these specks mounting their flanks.
And then I was shown the house of logs and stone. And then my baggage was thrown on its floor—and wasting none of the day, my escort fled.
As no one came this way, I had time enough to be tutored, to learn a strange language…but records seemed not to be kept. I could, and of necessity, I did, draw near the fire, ladle water from the boiling pot, hold this steaming basin at my peril under the blanket, sitting very still. In that way I whiled my hours thinking, taking myself round the tollhouse grounds, listing for myself all I might do for my greater comfort.
At the spinning of wool I was no hand, had I known, even, how to fashion distaff or wheel. If traders crossed this pass, I would offer for their rugs, if rugs they carried—what…? I asked myself. What can I make or do of value? I can trap, and so perhaps have skins. And I had the stock of oddments the old keeper had left behind him.
My sheep lived in cave-like diggings, in the outcrop of rock that sheltered the tollhouse. And yet they were tame, they expected me, came to me wanting the fodder I strewed for them. So far I had sufficient of this dried stuff, found in the stable that made a second room of the house.
I calculated that the earth here, in its arable season, must be meagre and gravel-sewn. But winter hardened or no, still one could chip at soil as at a stone wall. Each day to dig my trench another fingernail’s depth, until perhaps in a month, I would begin to lay there the fire’s ashes. Sift the pebbles, and salvage the dust. And in the spring, I might lay seed in the barest patch of fair humus. The roots would prime the ground for the next season.
Then, would I demand the toll; and then, would I tender it back for goods, which I had no right to do?
(2019, Stephanie Foster)