The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part eight)
Now as with many walled cities…as with Monsecchers, I had once mentioned…here were tunnels having secret openings, passages where a single body might squeeze between jagged rocks, or wriggle free among tangled roots. And watches would not be set over these places, which seemed wasted, inhabited by only the wild. In this way, although the people of the city starved, and the King’s soldiers as often quelled riots as manned his defenses—foraging parties, embassies to the besiegers, at length the Queen herself, trafficked as pleased them…
And in the Queen’s case (and those of her own household), did not return.
The King had the palace stores to survive on. But he was alone, not merely for his wife’s abandonment, but that he’d never won the respect of his ministers, his courtiers. The nobles of his city felt their losses, and cared nothing for his. They conspired, made pact with one another; they arranged to deliver him up to the besiegers, asking by messenger whether his enemies would prefer him alive, or would his death make matters more convenient?
Yet the King as cattle-keeper had been a congenial man. He had found in his loneliness, even before the ranging of that army summoned by his Queen, solace in wandering down to the stables, the pens and the grazing yards. And for these visits, in all the city he’d made one friend, a milkmaid, a dull-witted girl (as was thought), taught and afforded a simple living.
In truth, her imagination was so full of so many things, that she looked lost and did not answer when ordered about. But the girl had noted the Queen’s escape, and the means of it. Without occupation, with the milk cows slaughtered for their meat, she’d been sent to a lowly place, to sweep the tiles and hearths of a nobleman’s house.
“What is your name?” she asked the King.
They were both at an early hour come to the meadow where grasses waved tall, now the cattle were gone. And for the same reason, for a wistfulness troubling each heart.
He’d been going to say, Girl, do you not know who I am?
Instead, he told her, “Alchas.”
“My name is Runen. Are you sorry that woman has left? Would you follow her if you knew the way?”
What could Alchas say to this? He would, and he would not. But he said, “Show me.”
And once they’d got as far past the tunnel’s mouth as Runen dared lead him, she whispered the conspiracy she had heard, a girl so little regarded they’d spoken with her in the room.
Alchas settled into a shepherd’s hut, desolate for the war that raged in the land. He made traps for birds and fashioned a fishing net, dug roots…and as the year waned, harvested wild fruits. Happiness grew upon him, in this simplicity of caring for only himself.
But mindful of the necromancer’s verse, mindful he had journeyed far to reach the home he’d left, he lived content and sorely discontent.
He had had it before, and had thrown it away, happiness. He knew he could not keep it now.
My friends, you have foreseen the end.
The Herdsman-King, having made his face known to so many, escaped for only a time. Soon the god of that world below, Tophe, gathered in what had been promised. Alchas was discovered and sacrificed. The invaders departed, the city gates were opened…and there was joy for some.
A fable, as I learned it. Though perhaps a King Alchas had lived among the Emperor’s ancestors… For this perversity, that had made me wish to quiet myself with a story, I remained at the mouth of my cave, easily spotted. The lead rider blew a note on his horn that rose and fell. Small exchanges with Moth and other Balbaecans, gave me to understand the notes spoke a language. I was asked to come down and name myself.
I went down to within shouting distance, sparing them the long wait, had I picked my way over stones to reach the road. “The tollhouse I’ve left in the care of my servant. He will collect if your business takes you there. You may call me Keeper, or I am called at times Nur-Elom.”
The riders sat their horses indifferent.
It was a merchant of Balbaec who stood yoked to his wagon, along with his son. He was in that trade of decorated cloth, as had been Vlanna Madla, the wagon thus not over-weighty. But goods so desirable could be sold anywhere. He had hired guards, the wise choice…while neither, these few leagues from home, felt impelled yet to don his armor. Helms and breastplates and shields were slung behind saddles.
“Come down, Nur-Elom, and take my hand. I will like to have your blessing. If you would honor me with a game, indeed… Any ill omen and I will turn back.”
He laughed, and I padded along, not to trip and tumble—if I were to be a local dignitary.
While I padded, he spoke on.
“Omens are in the air…we are soon to play host to an army. A man of the Prince has given him news they say pleases him. But no, I will not ride to the mountains. I take the straight road, onwards. Some women of his household have forced Lord Ei to vacate his own.”
The Prince’s household, I thought. I was better with the Balbaecan tongue for knowing Moth, but so much gossip all at once, my eyes busy watching my feet and my ears sorting grammar, made me lose characters in the merchant’s tale.
What I knew of the Prince I did not feel privileged to say, and so I arrived totem in hand and stood in polite silence.
The son said, “Oh, there”, and nudged his father.
“Dare you show it?”
“Oh,” I said in turn, “it is nothing to me.”
I held my familiar to the sunlight, so that it would shine prettily. I was shy of the face, allowing one could be deluded…
That, having the ambition to succeed, I might invent my successes…with only the timid Moth for company and no worldly friend to doubt me.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)