The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part seven)
The cave road carried to the foot of a hill, down to the sea-plain of Balbaec proper. I saw travelers now, far away, a small company. If they had dogs, Cuerpha’s scent (my own, for all I knew) would carry a warning.
And I wanted that loneliness I hadn’t yet found; I wanted to escape a hailing exchange. Hospitality required that strangers not unfriendly keep the road together for a time, until had been said all that could be of one another. I would then take up my path, or be persuaded to abandon it. Or be given a companion to guide me.
With what sort of fame did the name of Nur-Elom ring, in this city where certainly it was known? Was I well-described? Would they disbelieve, be disappointed, that I could be the peddler’s Totem-Maker…supposing the peddler had traded on this gossip?
I took the totem from its pouch. An hour, two hours…
To judge, from my perch, how far they were, how much of contemplation I might entitle myself to…
I’d been going to say, was beyond me.
But these tiny figures made a mixed company: two riders at the head, several on foot, a cart… Pulled by no beast, only at each shaft a man. The riders, making themselves so unhelpful, must be hired escorts.
This had not been the arresting thought. I saw the entourage pass a tree, an olive, always planted (in such lands I’d known) at particular intervals along roadways. The oil of the fruits was healing to the sores of the foot-weary. And each, having its own character, its own small deity, marked the way with familiar comforts.
I will deem the man a head taller than myself. In two strides he covers his own height, did he lie on the ground… When I see him pass the olive, I count his paces to the next. I know these trees to be planted at measured lengths, and of an age. If I try, I can do better. I can judge in a way that is helpful to my purposes.
And not be…but now I was sure it was the totem, mocking…
Not be frustrated, sorry for myself, that I was asked to use my head.
And so, though sacrificing the time it took, I discovered an hour before I must watch closely, and hope, if my mood were still sullen, they would pass me unnoticed.
Ask. What was it you wanted?
To fling you to the road, let the travelers find you. No, Totem. The strength of my arm falls short, I need not trial it. And for my lack of faith you will work on me some drollery, as the story of the Herdsman-King, who sought to cheat death.
This, Reader, though I suspect you have such stories in whatever land I find you, was of a free citizen named Alchas. He espied one day, whiling his hours plaiting a chain of wildflowers, an entourage approach, that of a beautiful princess. She beckoned, against the frowning looks of her chief courtier, and Alchas descended, the flower-chain held careless in his hand.
“Oh! I’ll have that!”
He bowed, and the courtier disdainfully placed this gift around his mistress’s neck.
“And who is the fellow? Ask his name.”
Smitten, Alchas bore these spoiled manners…he did not rebuke her in his heart, for that, mounted paces away, she demanded her servant speak to him.
But the courtier said, “The man is nothing. A keeper of cattle.”
The woman tossed a ring to Alchas, and the entourage moved on. The ring was a dull brown bronze, the stone grey…a token that, when pressed upon her by her father’s necromancer, she had despised.
Alchas placed the ring on his finger, and swore an oath:
“Would I were king! And she my wife, and that rogue brought so low as to beg a herdsman for his very life!”
Came a thunderclap, and Alchas heard a voice:
None can be happy in all things
For in their weavings the Balancers hide
By will of Ami his symmetry, he
Who has charted the ages of all mankind
The tide no more does rise than fall
The gentle seasons flank the cruel
The years turn ever like a wheel
Long leagues the journey of a fool
Choose now, the necromancer said. Alchas looked at the lowering clouds overhead, at the forest glade behind. He listened to the stream that chattered below the hillock where he stood.
“What choice?” he asked at last. “What devil art thou?”
“Will you have all you wish, or will you be happy?”
Alchas doubted; the voice to him seemed trickery. And what can be all one wishes for, but happiness?
“Make me king!” he said, and laughed.
And at first his new life went well. He ordered the courtier thrown into the sea. He was high-handed with his queen, though to save herself she smiled and made obeisance to this husband. But, for Alchas knew not much of palace intrigues, thus scarcely did she need to employ them, she had sent to a kinsman, begging he would bring an army to her city’s walls, and lay siege.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)