Spring came, and the grass grew on the graves of the five men and three women who had died defending the village from the Red Dogs. The Day of Glad Tears came, the day when every one of the Ezwayna who had died that year were mourned and remembered. The Ezwayna did not have funerals; the dead were buried with the least amount of fuss. But on the Day of Glad Tears, the entire day and night was devoted to honouring them all.
No-Sooner and Piper were included too, of course. Fox had often wondered whether the Ezwayna considered the arrivals from the Empire to be members of their people. There were invited to all the ceremonies, all the occasions. They weren’t even invited; it was simply assumed that they would come along. And Grandy and Goodfellow were honoured just as much as the other old people. Even those Ezwayna who were a few years or months younger than them were like children before them.
(Amongst the Ezwayna, everybody knew everybody’s exact age, often down to their date of birth. Babies were given names belonging to the date on which they were born. People were sometimes embarrassed to admit their age in the Empire. But here, people were proud to be old.)
They did not go to the Great Hall for the Day of Glad Tears. It was held in a clearing of a forest, as it always had been. Fox understood why when they got there, though he could not have put it in words. There was something about trees that was both sad and comforting. They died a little death every year, but the forest lived on through centuries.
The Eldest did not appear. He never went amongst his people, even for the most important occasions. They never even mentioned his title; when they had to talk about him, they spoke of “the stone house”, as if it had a mind of its own. As time went by, Fox found it more and more difficult to believe that he had slept in that very house, and made such a demand of the tribe’s ruler.
“You look ridiculous in that”, said a voice behind him, and he turned around to see Sleep. It was a break in the ceremony; a ritual that went on for seven hours needed a break at some point.
“They couldn’t get one to fit me”, he said, fingering the thin grey robe that was hanging on his wiry frame. Everybody was wearing them; they were kept for this single day. “Nothing ever fits me. I’m too skinny.”
Sleep stared at him with her huge eyes, that never seemed to blink. She joked but never smiled. Sometimes Fox wondered if she was jealous of him; she seemed to worship the storyteller, but it was Fox who had become the old woman’s apprentice. And yet Sleep showed no sign of envy. But she seldom showed signs of any emotion.
“You should eat more”, she said, at last. Her utterances were sometimes cryptic, sometimes childishly simple. She paused another few moments, and said: “Do you know what the children say about you?”
“I’ve heard it all”, said Fox, feeling the familiar irritation coming over him. “It’s all nonsense.”
Sleep, who was impossible to put off, persisted: “They say your powers are getting stronger all the time, that the Storyteller is teaching you even more magic. They say you’ve been seen in two places at once. By different people, you know. They say that if you look somebody in the eyes they’ll have nightmares that night.”
“Why do the grown-ups let them talk such rubbish?”, asked Fox, angrily.
“Because the grown-ups don’t hear it”, said Sleep, blinking now, as if surprised at the foolishness of the question.
Fox said nothing. Nothing he said made any difference. He had snarled at the children who asked him if he could really stop hearts by saying a secret word, but that only terrified them. He was used to having them watch him, from a distance, with that exasperating mixture of fear and admiration.
“Is it rubbish?”, asked Sleep. “I mean, they say you were given these powers by a witch and you lose them if you admit that you have them.”
“That’s true”, said Fox, after he’d thought about this for a while. “I have them. And now I’ve just lost them.”
Sleep stared at him with slightly troubled but perfectly accepting eyes. “So you can admit it, really?”, she asked, in a lower voice, a voice suitable for mysteries.
“I have to talk to somebody else”, he said, despairing. He moved through the thin crowd, that was spread out over the wide clearing. And he ignored the stares of the whispers of the children, but he had got used to that.
He saw Grandy standing by himself. He was not a man for small talk, or pleasantries, and his cantankerousness scared most people from approaching him. But Fox was used to him.
The Ezwayna would never have believed it, but he was a mellower man since he had come here. He appreciated the young peoples’ fascination with his beloved Spiral, even though he pretended otherwise. And the respect shown to the old in this country would please even the crankiest old man. Fox remembered their former life, when Grandy seemed to snap at him a dozen times a day. He was glad that was over.
“Fox”, he said now, seeing him, and he even gave him a whimsical smile. His hair hadn’t been cut in a long time; it flopped over his eyes, and he continually had to sweep it away. “This is a lot of nonsense, isn’t it?”
“I thought you said we should respect their customs”, said Fox.
Now Grandy glowered at him. “That’s a bad habit, Fox. Trying to trip people up with their own words. Only an idiot is perfectly consistent.”
“I’m sorry” , said Fox humbly.
“Good”, said Grandy, his face becoming more placid. “Making a big fuss about death has always seemed ridiculous to me. Doing everything that can be done to keep somebody alive, that’s one thing. Only a swine would do otherwise. But when they’re gone? God takes over, then.”
“But you can’t forget them”, said Fox, before he could help himself.
“You forget them, or you don’t”, said Grandy, shrugging. “Standing about in grey robes and chanting is not going to make an ounce of difference either way.” He fell silent, making the curious chewing motion he made when he was parted from his pipe.
“Don’t you miss No-Sooner, though?”, asked Fox, cautiously. He had cried every night for weeks after No-Sooner had died. He kept remembering his sick face at the end, and his laughing eyes before the sickness came on him.
“Sometimes”, said Grandy, and Fox guessed that Grandy always thought about him. “He was no fool.” The tribute, that might have seemed weak to someone who didn’t know Grandy, was in fact the highest praise he could give. “But I envy him his death. That’s how I want to go, Fox.”
“Playing Spiral?”, asked Fox, who hated thinking about his grandfather dying. Grandy, on the other hand, seemed to love thinking about his own death.
“I don’t mean that exactly”, said his grandfather, carefully, as if he was explaining a very complicated point. “I mean doing something. I don’t want to die in bed, and I don’t want to die looking at daffodils. I want to go out with a hammer in my hand, or mid-sentence during a raging argument, or struck by lightning when I’m rowing a boat across a stormy lake.”
“I don’t want you to die at all”, said Fox, bashfully.
“Would be a pretty crowded world if nobody died, Fox”, said Grandy, who didn’t seem at all touched. “And a world full of cynics, too. Because the longer you live, the more cynical you get But their little ceremony is beginning again.”
The crowd began to move together again, forming a semi-circle around the Mother of Mourning, on the little hill by the ancient willow tree. Faces went from cheerful to solemn in a matter of moments, in a way that Fox could not help but find amusing.
The Mother of Mourning, like most important people, was white-haired. She did not wear a grey hooded robe like everybody else, but a brilliant red one. That probably meant something, but Fox couldn’t guess what. Apart from her white hair, she was remarkably youthful-looking, and her voice was clear and strong.
“There are those”, she said, looking from face to face, as if she was having an intimate conversation with two thousand people, “who say that our new home is more dangerous than the Anarchy ever was, that more of us have passed away through disease or wild beasts, or—as with the nine who perished defending us against the Red Dogs—by the hand of violent men.”
Fox saw many gazes turned downwards, and there was an uncomfortable shuffling amongst the crowd.
“Oh, you think we don’t hear your mutterings, but we do”, said the Mother of Mourning, and she did not even try to hide the satisfaction in her smile. She was a pretty woman, Fox found himself thinking. A pretty woman who had no
thought for her own prettiness. “A moment’s thought, children, will show you how foolish these whispers are”.
Fox saw a young woman with a pale face and eager eyes nodding at that, as if she could not possibly agree more.
“Do you really think death and disease are the worst sort of danger, my precious kindred? Can you look into your heart and truly believe that?”. Her voice was low now. “I can think of much worse dangers. Taverns full of drunkenness. Street brawls. Avarice. Working men treated like packhorses, and women beaten by their husbands, and children starving so their fathers could lower themselves deeper into the mire.
“I tell you all, from my heart, that I would rather see you all dead before me—every man, every woman, every baby—than corrupted by the snares we faced in the Anarchy. Mothers, the infants you hold now will hardly believe that such a place could exist, when they are grown up.
“If we were still in the Anarchy, the people who died fighting the Red Dogs might have had their skulls hammered in by some lout, on their way home from another day’s exhausting labour. What glory is there in a death like that? But the end they met was glorious indeed.”
Eyes were shining with tears under grey hoods, and mothers hugged their children closer to them. There was a grateful look to the faces ringed around, as if the Mother of Mourning had reassured them of something they had been doubting. As if she had released them from some great pain.
“And then there are those who speak of our guests, the ones that”—she paused for a moment, a pause that Fox had learnt stood for the forbidden word God—“chose to send to us. There were those, and by no means only the young and inexperienced, who said that we should expel the young man from our home. Can anybody doubt now that…” God “…always has a plan? None of us would be alive today if Piper had been sent into the wilderness.
“But we do not learn. Rather than humbly accepting the plan, we try to understand it, and end up understanding nothing. I have even heard some people whispering against our old ways, our traditions, our customs. If a man like Piper can be good without the old ways, they say, why keep them?”
There was a low gasp from some of the crowd. They were shocked that such ideas existed and were spoken, even in whispers.
“It is as ridiculous”, said the Mother of Mourning, with perfect calm, “as if a little boy were to see his mother let the cat out at night, to roam amongst shadows until morning, and if he were to decide that he should be allowed to do the same thing.” There was polite, nervous laughter from some of the crowd. But the Mother of Mourning’s frown did not disappear. “Our ways were not made for our guests, though you see they honour them. The customs were made for us. We need them, though every other being on this world, or upon every other world, may not.
“And then there is No-Sooner, the man who died playing a game.” Fox could see many people looking curious now; nobody was really sure what the elders thought about Spiral, and about the mania for Spiral that had seized the young. They had not forbidden it, but none of them had ventured into the Spiral House, either.
“Was this as noble a death as the nine who perished saving our people? Who can say? Remember the words of Arazua; All that is not cursed is blessed. When a man has done his duty by his people and his family, then let him delight his own heart in whatever way he pleases. Our ancestors never taught us that pleasure was a shameful thing. It is rightly said that a good man’s desires can never be unclean. And No-Sooner was a good man, a man we are proud to mourn with our own.”
There was a ripple amongst the crowd. Fox knew that it was the young people smiling at each other, congratulating each other silently on this unexpected blessing for the game they loved. Even Grandy looked pleased, and Goodfellow- who was standing at the edge of the crowd-- beamed.
“The old are wiser than the young, and the dead are wiser than the living. The more years go by, the richer a people or a nation becomes, with more of the dead to guide them. It is not only today that we should contemplate those who have departed. We should always delight in the tales of our grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers. Every day we should think about their deeds, and honour them as our greatest glory. The true
death is to be forgotten by your people. No Ezwayna will ever suffer that fate, while we remain true to our ways.”
Then the Mother of Mourning spent fully forty minutes describing those who had died. To his own surprise, Fox was not bored. He was astonished at how much the Mother of Mourning seemed to know. She described those who had fallen in battle from their childhoods; their friends, their talents, the happiest and the darkness moments of their lives. Marala Swiftstorm, the first to fall, had been the best swimmer of all the Ezwayna; she had an endless appetite for riddles and every sort of silliness, and loved to dress herself in red and green. When she was fifteen years old, she had almost died of a disease that had taken many of her people in this land, a disease they called Purple Passion. She had recovered and lived another twelve years, becoming engaged to a man who had also died in the battle, trying to avenge her.
And so the Mother of Mourning continued, for every one of them. It didn’t sound like a rehearsed speech, as if she had gone gathering facts and memories from those who had loved them, and committed them to memory. Fox got the impression that she could have spoken at much greater length; that there were a hundred more stories she could have told about each one.
It was the same when she came to No-Sooner and Piper. Fox was startled by how much she seemed to know of the Empire. She spoke about trains as if he had traveled on one herself. She described them so well, Fox was sure that she must have conjured up a pretty accurate picture in the minds of the other Ezwayna. Somehow, he was even more surprised that she seemed to have a good understanding of Spiral.
The she passed onto Piper, and her words became slower, more careful.
“Piper”, she said, “was perhaps the kind of man we fled in the Anarchy, my dear ones. We could see the fire in his eye, the craving for excitement and even for suffering that we recognised so well. Oh, my dear friends, pity those who long for suffering! Most of the pain would disappear from the world if man did not secretly wish for it.
“Piper's mother died when her arm was caught in a machine, in a factory that made clothes. After that, he made a living begging, stealing and running errands in one of his world’s most miserable towns, on the outskirts of the Empire. His father had been executed before he was born, for stirring rebellion amongst those who built the railways.
“I myself heard him say that, not only had he forgiven the man who had executed his father, but that he had come to admire him more than any other man he had ever known”.
Fox’s eye sought out Grandy, who didn’t seem in the least surprised or touched by this. Fox himself was shocked.
“And we should follow his example”, said the Mother of Mourning. “We must learn to forgive the Red Dogs who fell to our swords and spears, to include them in our thoughts today.” There were some mutterings at this, but the Mother of Mourning continued as if she had not noticed them. “Not to honour them as we honour our own fallen, but to hail their spirits, too, to hope that death has made them wiser than they were in life. Because there is no such thing as evil. There is only misunderstanding.” She bowed her head, and the rest of her people followed suit. They stood so for fully fifteen minutes.
Fox stood within the glade, feeling something he had never felt before, not in all his years in the Empire. He felt at home. He raised his head a little, glancing around the assembly, and realised that he knew the names of most of the people gathered here. Some of them had been harsh with him, even slapping him in the face when his questions became insistent. Some of them had ridiculed him for his weakness, like the children who could swing from branch to branch of a Benefactor tree and were astonished that he could not do so. Many simply ignored him. But…
But he felt no hatred towards him in this country. In the Empire, he had seen hatred all the time; in the eyes of strangers who passed him in the street, people to whom he had never done anything, but who seemed to burn to do harm to him, if the light in their cold, glassy eyes was anything to go by. Men in long black coats and dirty hair, who looked as if they had not eaten properly in years, who looked as if they could feed off the anger and pain inside them. And then there were women with tired, tired faces, a tiredness that no amount of sleep could satisfy, a tiredness that came from years of labour and anxiety. When they had children with them, they screamed at them and beat them, as if they were teaching them the ways of pain.
But here, even when the grown-ups smacked him on side of the head, and even when the children taunted his weakness, there was no sting to their words or their blows. A moment later the children would be inviting him into some other game—marbles, or race-and-climb— and there was no real force in the hands of the grown-ups that struck him. And, for every grown-up that lost patience with him, there were ten who never got tired of answering his questions.
When he thought of the Anarchy, he imagined somewhere just like the Empire. Fox believed that there were only two kinds of place, on this world or any other. One of those places was the Empire, or the Anarchy, or every other place where strangers were natural enemies and man was more dangerous than wild beasts. And then there was this country. Perhaps there were other places like this; but Fox could hardly believe it. The purple stone, that somehow protected him from harm, had brought him to the place where he would be safest. He would spend the rest of his life watching these trees lose their leaves in autumn, and putting out new ones in spring. Every year he would listen to the Mother of Mourning lamenting those who had passed away, but he wouldn’t feel too sad, because here, even death was beautiful. Men and women went into that other world as gracefully as falling leaves, and even in death they still lived with the people who had loved them, not seen or heard but felt. Felt, and loved.
That was the only story he wanted in his own life, he thought, as he followed the other Ezwayna back to the village. He wanted to tell stories, not to live them. And he would stick to that plan, whatever the storyteller thought.
That night, he slept well. So did most of the Ezwayna, lulled by the Mother of Mourning’s words. But the Mother’s sleep was troubled, because she knew her words had not been enough.
Armala threw some more logs into the fire, and made a sign with her hand to Sleep. Sleep jumped from the window-ledge where she liked to sit, and skipped out the door of the tamzan. She might have been going out to draw water from the well, or gather more firewood, or look for eggs, or collect one of Armala’s robes from the washerwomen. Sleep always seemed to know what the Storyteller wanted, without a word ever being exchanged. Fox had stopped being surprised by this.
“Do you regret asking to be my apprentice?”, asked the storyteller, staring into the fire. She never seemed to tire of staring into it.
“No”, said Fox, surprised, and a little bit nervous. He was always frightened Armala was going to tell him that he had failed his apprenticeship, that he was impossible to teach. For two weeks now she had listened to him tell her what stories and talk he had heard from the Ezwayna; from the children, the fishermen, the farmers, the hunters, the laundresses. He passed their memories onto her, the stories they told each other, the jokes they made. The Elder’s love of Armala was mentioned in many of the women’s stories. Fox had passed those on, too. Armala seemed neither offended nor amused.
“You have a haunted look these days”, she said, still not turning her eyes from the fire. “Your mind wanders.”
“I’ve heard so much…” said Fox, who no longer hesitated to tell the storyteller his mind.
“And what has it taught you?”, asked Armala. There was a hint of amusement in her voice. Her sense of humour appeared at the oddest moments, and Fox rarely understood what had amused her.
“I don’t know”, said Fox. Then, seeing that the old woman seemed less than impressed with this admission, he added: “Every person I talk to seems to change my mind. Some of them say life is about honour—about what people say about when you’re dead—and some of them say life is about pleasure—having what sport you can when you manage it.”
“Some say it’s about duty—“ he went on, but she interrupted him.
“Don’t talk nonsense to me”, she said. “No twelve-year-old ever worried about the meaning of life. It’s something more simple by far.”
Fox blushed, a deep hot blush. Why had he keep trying to fool the old woman? He could never pull it off. And he felt like crumbling to dust with embarrassment every time she caught him out.
He was sitting with his arms around his knees, feeling the warmth of the fire on his shins, and now he hugged them into his body, as if trying to shrink from the storytellers gaze, or trying to comfort himself. “It’s Grandy,” he admitted, and she gave a little nod and the glimmer of a smile, as if she’d known all along, but wanted him to say it.
He said nothing more for a few moments, hoping that Armala wouldn’t expect him to, hoping that he had said enough already. But she merely continued staring into the fire, nodding rather sadly. How many hours now had they sat like this? Fox sometimes felt he had been in this shadowy tamzan for years. Even before he had ever met the old woman. Even before he had born.
“I don’t think he thinks very much about…this”, said Fox, feeling intense shame on behalf of his grandfather. “I don’t think he likes me doing it.”
“It’s not a question of thinking”, said the old woman, smiling again. “He doesn’t like you doing it.”
“Yes”, said Fox, hanging his head. He was ashamed before Grandy, and he was ashamed for Grandy’s sake before the old woman. He felt dominated by whatever strong personality was talking to him at the moment. When Grandy was talking to him, he was sure that all the old woman’s tales and proverbs were nothing but the entertainment of fools and idlers, just a kind of gossip. What could that do to develop the intellect? What could it do to strengthen the character? What could it do to change the world?
“What about spending all your time playing Spiral?”, Fox had asked Grandy. His grandfather had been poring over a problem at that very moment, on his own private Spiral set. By this time, not even his conversations were allowed to break the study of the game.
“My case and your case are very different, boy”, said Grandy, twirling the top of a horse-shaped piece between his thumb and forefinger, hesitating over moving it. “This is the sport of my age. I’ve served my turn already. The drama
of my days has played out. Nobody can rest easy until the world has used them up, until they’ve been exhausted and cast aside. For good or for bad, I built the Empire’s railways. All the rest is stuffing. All the rest is just filling in time.”
“But you don’t mind the young people here playing Spiral”, said Fox, rather nervously, trying to make some sense of the tangle of pieces on the board. He made occasional attempts to learn the game. None of them lasted for very long.
“Oh, I do mind very much”, said Grandy. “As I tell them. But they’re not my responsibility. You are. My conscience would not be easy if I saw you missing out on all the joy and misery and glory of life.”
“And what’s that?”, asked Fox, wondering why nobody seemed very impressed by the life he had chosen.
“To play your part”, said Grandy, looking aside from the Spiral board a moment, a flash of excitement in his eyes. “All the world—all of the worlds, the millions of worlds there may be out there—are like this board, Fox. And we’re all like pieces on that board. We live to keep the game going. For good or for bad, for one side or the other, it doesn’t really matter.”
He broke down in violent coughing, as he always seemed to do these days, when he got excited. Jasma had been nagging him to let Secret give him some of her treatments—she seemed to have treatments for everything under the sun—but Grandy always waved her away, saying that the silly girl might even cure him, if only by sheer chance. It made Fox sad that he didn’t want to be cured.
“What about here?”, asked Fox now. “The Ezwayna don’t change anything. They hate change.”
“That’s why they’re all so miserable”, said Grandy, without a moment’s pause for thought.
Fox was taken aback. Had Grandy thought this all along? He had never hinted it. “They don’t seem miserable to me”, he said. “They seem very happy.”
“Nonsense, boy”, said Grandy, looking up at Fox himself now, as if the very idea that the Ezwayna were happy was an astounding claim. Fox felt a moment’s happiness that Grandy was actually looking at him. He never seemed to do that anymore.
Grandy’s tamzan was very different from the storyteller’s. Hers was cluttered, full of flowers and many-coloured woven cloths, wicker baskets and chests and often even hens strutting across the reed-lined ground. There was a perpetual smell of cooking. Grandy’s tamzan was almost bare, with little furniture besides the great table on which he kept his Spiral boards and pieces. Instead of cooking, there was the ever-present smell of pipe-smoke. The world seemed very different, too, depending on whether he was sitting in Grandy’s tamzan, or the storyteller’s.
“Nonsense”, Grandy had repeated. “I don’t think I’ve ever met people as unhappy as the Ezwayna. They have nothing to strive for. That’s why the young people are so besotted with Spiral, and why I don’t them criticise them too much for it. They’re insanely bored.”
“At least they’re safe”, said Fox. “In the Anarchy—“
“Oh, ho, ho”, said Grandy, with a twisted smile. Fox hated it when he gave that theatrical laugh. It made him feel stupid. But Grandy didn’t notice his irritation. He just said, “What do they ever talk about except the Anarchy? And what about when the Red Dogs attacked? They’ve hardly stopped talking about that. Most of them hope they’re going to attack again.”
Fox thought of the Ezwayna, how the very word “violence” on their lips sounded like something poisonous, hideous, disgusting.
“I’ve heard them say that violence is more evil than all the evils put together. I’ve heard them say—“
“Never mind what they say”, said Grandy, almost softly, as if he was disappointed with Fox’s stupidity. He turned his gaze on the boy, earnestly, almost piercingly. Fox found it difficult not to flinch from it, but he managed.
“I’ll never understand”, said the old man, “how the strange idea that violence is the worst thing in the world came about. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone happier than the soldiers I fought with in the Great Sickle, in the Maraguan campaign.”
“Weren’t they scared they were going to die?”, asked Fox, who couldn’t imagine fighting in a war and not going insane.
“That’s what made them happy”, said Grandy. “At least, it made the married men happy”. Fox thought he was joking—Grandy often made jokes about marriage—but there was no mirth on his lips or in his eyes. “The married men with children, that is. They were living through history, and their names would live on through their children. What more could a man ask for?”
“Do you wish you’d died there?”, asked Fox, feeling strangely cold.
“Hmph”, said Grandy, looking a little bit irritated at the question. “Well, maybe not. There were good times after…and there were still the railways to build…no, I’m glad I wasn’t taken then. But the sad truth is that most people don’t have my potential. Or, maybe, your potential.”
“My potential?”, asked Fox, trying to fight down a smile.
Grandy nodded briskly, and then shrugged. “Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never known if you’re cut out for anything much. Most people are good-hearted, hard-working in times of peace, brave enough in times of war. I sometimes think you might be different. I sometimes think you might do something. Other times I think you’re too dreamy and weak-hearted to be anything out of the ordinary.”
Fox didn’t say anything. The only book he had ever read was The Memoirs of Josper Stronghouse, but even from that little knowledge of the wider world—before he came to this place—he knew that most fathers did not talk to their sons in that way. Was it different for grandfathers and grandsons? He didn’t know. But sometimes he wished Grandy was like Josper’s father, who had convinced Josper by the age of eight that he was destined to run the Empire one day.
“Being a storyteller isn’t ordinary”, said Fox, feeling thoroughly ashamed now.
“It’s women’s work, Fox”, said Grandy, “and not fit for a man. The heavens know, I have nothing against women. Man’s life wouldn’t be worth living without them. But history is made by men. The world is changed by men. Men who spend all their time around women, or doing woman’s things…they become soft, emotional, too full of pity. A woman can never understand how one man can fire a rifle at another man, and do his best to send him to the next life, and do it without the least trace of malice. Do it as innocently, as joyfully, as little boys throwing snowballs. Women take everything too seriously, and they don’t take anything seriously enough.”
Then he broke down into another fit of coughing, and his face was crossed by that look of fury, fury at his own body for fighting against him. He was coughing for fully three minutes, and another fit was taking him when he waved Fox out of the tamzan. Fox stood outside, listening to the old man’s coughs, and that night he prayed for Grandy not to be taken away, even if that’s what Grandy wanted.
Now, sitting cross-legged amongst the delicious smells of the Armala’s tamzan, Fox said: “Grandy said that I’ll turn into a woman if stay here, talking to you.”
“If you don’t turn into a woman”, said Armala, smiling, “then you’ll never be much use as a storyteller. A teller of tales is man and woman, and child and adult, and human and beast. Maybe even god and mortal.”
She laughed when she saw the astonishment, perhaps even the horror, on his face. He had never heard one of the Ezwayna use the word God before. He had stopped using it himself, as had Jasma. To say you could see through the eyes of God…that was almost beyond blasphemy.
“I’m just wicked, Fox”, said the old woman, lying back on her bed of rushes, seeming suddenly tired. “I’ve heard and told stories that would singe your hair. You’re far too young for those”. Fox could feel his cheeks blazing, and Armala didn’t hide her amusement.
“What you have to be remember”, she said, her eyes closed, “is that your Grandy is a good man. One of the best I have ever known. A pig-headed, ignorant, rude, reckless man, but still one of the very best. If you live to be his age, you might appreciate what kind of a man he is.”
Now Fox was glowing again, but this time with pride. It was all he could do to keep tears from eyes.
“But”, said the old woman, opening her eyes again and rising once more to a sitting position—she would often take these impromptu naps—“you’re going to have to displease him, if you want to follow your heart. Grandy will never be reconciled to you becoming a storyteller. He’ll die considering you a failure, a terrible disappointment, more like your father than himself. And you have to accept that, or change your course entirely.”
Fox did not reply. He looked at the ground, and thought that perhaps—
“That won’t do, boy”, said Armala, cutting into his thoughts. “You know that I’m right. Stop trying to trick yourself. The people who do that become all too good at it.”
Suddenly Fox realised that Sleep was standing beside him, looking at him with her full moon eyes. She was always doing that. The girl seemed to move without any sound at all. How long had she been standing there? It didn’t matter. He was never embarrassed to have Sleep listening to him. There was something so utterly accepting about her that embarrassment seemed entirely out of place.
“Hello, Sleep”, he said.
She gave one of her sudden, incongruous smiles—she seemed to become another person when she smiled, it was so stark a contrast to her usual solemnity—then it disappeared and she looked at the old woman.
“Truevow is setting out today”, she said.
The lady sat up straighter now, and she wore an expression that Fox had never seen upon her face before. All of a sudden, she looked like a girl about to play a game of hide-and-seek, or a boy absorbed in a game of marbles. It was unmistakeably playful and eager.
“Is he indeed?”, she asked. “Is he indeed?”
“He is”, said Sleep, nodding slowly. “Indeed he is.”
They both turned their eyes towards Fox, with the expression of a Spiral player who has taken his turn and is waiting for his opponent to make the next move.
“Setting out?”, asked Fox. “Where to?”.
Armala laughed—there was something silvery about her laugher, that seemed to make fifty years disappear from her age in a moment—and Sleep quickly joined in, though she seemed to have no idea what she was laughing at.
“You’ll see”, said Armala. “Go to your tamzan and get a cloak. You’re going on an adventure. Your Grandy will like that, won’t he?”
Sleep squeaked with pleasure.
Truevow was leaner than ever. He had always been spare, but now he hardly seemed to have any fat on his bones at all. He seemed to be all muscle and sinew, and he had a light tan. The Ezwayna had pale complexions, and did not tan easily, so he must have been spending a considerable amount of time out of doors. The early summer was warm, but far from glorious.
His leather quiver was so full of arrows that Fox—though he had become stronger since coming to this world—found his arms tiring, carrying it through the heavy terrain of the uplands. Along with the tent and their sack of provisions, it was a hefty burden.
Truevow was searching for the Blue Stag, the legendary creature that was said to roam the uplands every spring. Most people treated it as a legend or a joke, a trick to be played upon gullible, glory-hunting youths. Truevow was sure they were wrong. Fox wasn’t surprised. Truevow was the kind of person who’d believe anything, as long as it was ridiculous.
“Where did the stories come from, Fox?”, he asked the boy, when Fox admitted he thought it was just a story. “Who would make up something like that?”
“Lots of people”, said Fox, already feeling the futility of arguing with Truevow. Armala had told Fox to help, and if Truevow decided to spend the entire spring and summer searching for the Blue Stag, Fox would have no choice but to help him. If he decided to wander back to the village by himself, his apprenticeship to the Storyteller would be at end.
Armala, it seemed, had a cruel sense of humour.
“No, I’m convinced you’re wrong,” said Truevow. “I love my people, but…”
“Yes?”, asked Fox, struggling over the latest slope of stony ground, and wondering how far the climb would continue.
“Well, they’re not imaginative people, are they?”, asked Truevow. “They don’t have much interest in poetry, or stories. They’re more interested in sheep and fish and beer.”
Fox thought of the street hucksters in the Empire. He thought of the rich men who passed through the streets in their coaches, looking at the properties around them as if they were guessing how much they’d cost. He thought of Jasma’s friends, who seemed to spend most of their time trying to snare a wealthy husband.
“In the world I came from”, said Fox, “nobody cared a straw about poetry. I don’t think I ever heard a poem until I came here. Except for the little cautionary verses that Jasma would tell me”
As soon as he had mentioned her name, Fox stopped, but it was already too late. That look of holy adoration had come over Truevow’s lean face.
“I should have known”, he said, softly, gazing out at the sea of ferns and shrubbery that lay around them, “that the only poetry in the Empire would have come from Jasma’s lips”.
“It wasn’t really poetry”, said Fox, remembering the ghoulish rhymes of children who ate too fast, or didn’t listen to their parents, or played truant from school. They always died in the most gruesome way possible.
“It would be, coming from her.” He stopped moving for a few moments. Fox was panting now, but Truevow didn’t seem in the slightest bit fatigued. He hadn’t been seen around the settlement much. People said he spent his time out wandering the woods.
“Didn’t you ever get to be….the Father of the League of Youth?”, asked Fox, reluctantly.
“You mean Uncle of the March of Youth?”, said Truevow, with a rather sad smile. “No, I didn’t, I’m afraid. All I got was ducked into several ponds for my trouble.”
“Oh”, said Fox, who could all too easily imagine the other young men throwing Truevow into murky water. “I’m sorry”.
“No matter”, said Truevow. “It was a good thing, no doubt. I shouldn’t have been inspired to seek the Blue Stag otherwise. I think that would be much more likely to impress Jasma.”
Fox could say nothing to this, and he concentrated on carrying the quiver and tent and packs, which seemed to be getting heavier every moment. Grandy had often marvelled at the Ezwayna’s tents—so light when collapsed, so sturdy when set up—but they didn’t seem light right now.
“But what about you, Fox?”, asked Truevow, entirely oblivious to the boy’s fatigue. “What do you make of this land, this vast silence, as it must seem to you, after the hum and bustle of a mighty Empire?”
He looked at Fox with genuine interest—much of the time Truevow seemed to speak for no reason other than his pleasure in fancy words. But not this time, it seemed.
Encouraged, Fox said: “I like it. I’m happy here. I have everything I want.”
“Who yearns not for the storied lands beyond the far-off hills?”, quoted Truevow, and his voice echoed in the rocky country around them. “Oh, Fox, if only I had your admirable contentment! If I had your powers, I would be vanishing off to every world there was, always looking for new experiences.”
Fox was almost more surprised than irritated at this. He thought it was just the children who believed the rumours.
“Truevow”, he said, stopping his walk, “I can’t flash anywhere. I’m not able to move from world to world. It just happened once. Twice, I suppose. I had nothing to do with it.”
Truevow gave him a knowing smile. “So it suits you to say”, he said, stopping himself. “Are you tired?”, he asked then, as if the thought was a curious one. “You seem a bit flustered”.
“Yes, I’m tired”, said Fox. “But forget about that. Right now, I’m more sick of people saying I have magical powers.”
“Why would that upset you?”, asked Truevow, who had slung his own pack onto the ground, evidently deciding to pause for a while.
“Because it’s a lie!”, cried Fox, passionately. “And besides…”
“What?”, asked Truevow, after a few moments of Fox’s silence. Truevow looked at him like no other grown-up, had ever looked at him, not even Armala. Truevow paid as much attention to him as if he was the Eldest himself. It was almost embarrassing.
“It’s bad luck to talk about things like that”, said Fox, realising for the first time why he hated any mention of his vanishing acts. “It might make it happen again.” And that moment he remembered something he had forgotten, or not allowed himself to remember. He remembered a whole series of dreams in which the purple flash took him from this world, which contained everything he wanted, and brought him to another and dreadful one.
“To speak of a thing is to make it happpen?”, asked Truevow, pressing the grass beneath him with his boot to check for stones, and then lowering himself upon it. He sat with his legs stretched out, and his hands rested on his knees. “That’s an old idea, Fox, but I’m not sure it’s a true one. I talk about Jasma all the time, but she doesn’t appear. She doesn’t even let me kiss her.”
Fox remembered how surprised he had been when he saw an Ezwayna girl kissing two different men, only hours apart. Eventually, he had learnt that kissing and embracing was viewed much more casually amongst the Ezwayna than it had been in the Empire. An Ezwayna woman would accept a kiss as readily as she would accept a dance.
“Does she talk about me at all?”, he asked now. Fox was sitting down, too, resting his grateful back against the packs.
“I hardly see Jasma at all these days”, protested Fox. It was true. “I spend most of my time with the Storyteller, or doing what she tells me to do. Listening to peoples’ stories. Spending a night in the graveyard. Watching the birds all day. I don’t have time to do anything else.”
“The Storyteller is not prized at her true worth”, said Truevow, regretfully. “The people are entranced by her stories, but they scorn her as soon as the tale is over. They say that she’s a drain.”
“A drain?”, asked Fox, remembering the cool reactions he got from many of the Ezwayna—especially the men—when he mentioned Armala’s name. Nobody would speak openly against her, but there would be a moment’s frown, a hint of something unsaid.
“They say she’d be better occupied spinning clothes, or sowing turnips”, said Truevow, shaking his head. “This people have grown too rough, in this rough land. Nothing noble meets with their approval anymore.” There was a bitterness in his voice as he said this, and Fox wondered if he was thinking of his own poetry, which had become something of a standing joke amongst the Ezwayna.
“How come nobody else is trying to catch the Blue Stag?”, asked Fox, frightened that Truevow would start reciting again. It was the first question that came into his head.
“They’ve all given up”, said Truevow, wistfully. “It has been many years now since anybody went to seek the Stag. I had to endure much mockery when I declared my quest. But I’m used to mockery.”
As he said this, Fox felt a twinge of pity. He could imagine the ridicule that Truevow had heaped upon him. His name was never mentioned without a smirk, it seemed, and Jasma and Secret laughed about him all the time. They called him Sweet Flower. But there was not the slightest hint of self-pity in Truevow’s voice. He seemed to see himself as a tragic figure, not a figure of fun.
“So how did the story begin?”, asked Fox. “Did somebody see the Blue Stag?” He wondered why the story had not been mentioned to him; he had spent a month listening to traditions and memories and anecdotes, some of them completely unbelievable.
“No”, said Truevow, with reluctance. “Never actually seen. But…Carna Gentlewind dreamt about it”, he said.
“Carna Gentlewind”, repeated Fox. “Wasn’t she the child who guided you here? The one who was born…”
“During an eclipse of the sun, yes”, said Truevow. “She was the most beautiful child you could ever have imagined, and the sweetest. She’s buried beneath the Great Hall.”
Fox had heard about the child over and over again. The Ezwayna had stopped their trek when she fell sick and died. Her last word was “home”. Everybody who mentioned her spoke about her beauty and her goodness, but nobody had mentioned the Blue Stag until now.
“She said that the person who first laid eyes on the Blue Stag,” said Truevow, and he could not conceal his excitement, “would decide the future of the Ezwayna. The first spring we were here—she died in the winter—every young man, and many old ones, must have taken to the uplands, where she said the Blue Stag roamed, looking to fulfil the prophecy. And the next year, and the next year, and the next.
“But after that, the numbers dwindled, and within ten years, people began to doubt the prophecy. After all, only one person heard her mention it. That was her maid Tarkana Raindrop, who was notoriously flighty and vain. People said it would be all too typical for her to invent a dream, just as the child was dying. And then she died herself, in childbirth, a few years later. Just like my own mother.”
Lots of women seemed to have died in the childbirth since the Ezwayna came to this country, thought Fox. He had met a lot of motherless children. They were usually fiercer than the other Ezwayna children, who were already fierce enough.
“And nobody’s ever seen it” , said Fox, not trying too hard to keep the scepticism from his voice.
“There was one year when somebody did bring the body of a blue stag back”, said Truevow. “But it turned out to be dyed, with dried nightberry juice. It looked more purple than blue, actually. He spent the next month being smeared with nightberry juice himself.” Truevow did not smile at the thought. Fox wondered if he had ever laughed or made a joke in his life.
“So…how long are you going to look?”, asked Fox, remembering Armala’s words. “You’re Truevow’s apprentice now, and if you break that apprenticeship before he returns, you break mine too. Don’t test me on this, Fox.”
“Until I catch the Blue Stag”, said Truevow, matter-of-factly. “Or until the summer ends. But something tells me that I’m going to be lucky. I feel it in my veins”.
“I don’t feel anything at all in my veins right now”, said Fox, rather sharply.
To his surprise, Truevow gave a hearty laugh, and said: “You’re a funny sort of fellow, Fox. Has nobody ever told you that?”.
They moved on. Fox could feel aches beginning in his back, his shoulders, his thighs. How badly were they going to hurt after a few days of this? Perhaps his body would get used to it, he thought. Truevow’s seemed to have; he looked like he could walk to the end of the world without breaking a sweat. Occasionally his lips would move without sound, either reciting poetry to himself, or composing it.
As long as he keeps it himself, thought Fox, he didn’t mind which it was. He had enough to worry without having to listen to some weird idea put into even weirder words.
But Truevow seemed to have forgotten he was there, almost, and Fox distracted himself from his aches by wondering if they could really be out here all summer. What if Grandy were to die in that time? Every day, as far back as he could remember, he had worried about Grandy dying. He thought of him like a bridge perpetually about to collapse. Every day and every moment was like another heavy cart passing over the bridge, making it buckle a little bit more.
He wished that he could have said goodbye to him, but Armala had been strict. He had to go with Truevow right at that moment, with no goodbyes, and hardly any preparations. Sometimes he wondered if the old woman had a streak of cruelty in her.
“And the summer strains vainly to waken my winter-bound heart”, he heard Truevow say from a little beyond him. The words were faint, and not meant for his ears, but something about them excited Fox. He forgot his groaning body and hurried ahead, trying to catch up with Truevow. The slope was getting steeper all the time, and Truevow was getting higher above him.
“What was that?”, asked Fox, finally pulling himself up to Truevow’s level.
The young man looked around, confusion on his long, delicate face. “What was what?”, he asked. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“What you said”, Fox explained, feeling strangely bashful.
Truevow came to a stop and looked into the distance, trying to remember what he had been saying. “Do you mean the poem?”, he asked finally, looking utterly dumbfounded. “The Prince of Winter?”
“Something about a wintry heart”, said Fox, rather bashfully.
“And the summer strains vainly to waken my winter-bound heart”, said Truevow, louder this time, so that it seemed to fill the lonely landscape. “You like that?”, he asked, peering into Fox’s eyes as if he was searching for signs of sickness.
“Yes”, said the boy, rather defensively. Why shouldn’t he like a line of poetry, after all? “It makes me think of…somebody being full of ice and frost inside. I don’t know.” He felt himself blushing.
“Oh, my dear lad”, said Truevow, giving Fox a broad smile, and lowering himself onto one knee so he was on a level with the boy. “That is one of my very favourite—one of my very favourite lines of poetry. How it rolls! The sheer…suddenness of the image!”. Truevow looked happier than Fox had ever seen him before.
“I just like it”, said Fox, rolling it around in his own mind.
“It’s by Karrakan, a poet who was much esteemed in the Anarchy a hundred years ago. He’s rather fallen out of favour now, or so the older people who took an interest in literature tell me. I was too young to care very much for poetry when we started our great trek. But they tell me now that mentioning Karrakan is likely to get you laughed at, amongst the polite classes there.” For a moment, Truevow’s face took on an expression Fox would never have expected to see there. He looked angry.
Fox didn’t say anything. He didn’t know anything about poets. But the words had made him strangely excited.
But then Truevow continued: “The full verse is:
The smiles of bright women are fixed upon others, whose blood
Runs hotter than mine. I am cold to the moonlight’s cold art.
The spring does not bear me along on its leafy green flood
And the summer strains vainly to waken my winter-bound heart.”
“I don’t like the other lines so much”, said Fox. “But I like the last one.”
As they continued to climb up the hilly country, Truevow quoted Fox more poems. Most left him as cold as Karrakan had been left by the moon’s cold art—Truevow seemed crestfallen at Fox’s indifference to some of the verses—but others excited him as much as anything had excited him before. It was like an echo of the excitement he had felt when he had first listened to Armala’s stories.
One pleased him more than any of the others: The great song that resounds through centuries.
“What does that mean?”, he asked Truevow, who was almost as a grateful as a child when Fox loved one of his own favourites. That was one of them, and Truevow was beaming.
“Oh, who can say what a poem means?”, asked Truevow, irritating the boy. “A great poem is something that means more than it can ever say, Fox.”
“Never mind, then”, said Fox, who hated that kind of talk.
“But we can still understand it to some degree”, said Truevow, hastily. “And I believe that the poet is talking about the drama of human existence, the theatre of history, the story that is unfolding all around us every moment, in every place.” A cloud passed over the young man’s features with those words.
“What’s wrong?”, asked Fox, who was beginning to like Truevow better.
“Oh…it’s a silly notion”, said Truevow. “But I wonder what part the Ezwayna have in that great drama. The drama of history, I mean.”
“What do you mean?”, asked Fox. He was still confused, and he was growing more conscious of how much his limbs and joints were hurting.
“Well”, said Truevow, looking to the west with a curious sort of shame upon his face, “out there is the world where all the great ideas of our time are shaking mankind. The future is being fought over, and we have no idea what that fight is like.
“In Karrakan’s time”, he continued, peering into the distance as if he could make out the country from which his people had migrated, “the great idea was simplicity. He used the language of the common man, the images of nature and ordinary life. Before him, and other poets like him, you hadn’t got much chance of understanding a poem unless you’d a school education, and not many of the Ezwayna had that. I wonder what the great ideas of the day are now?”
“Would you rather be back in the Anarchy?”, asked Fox.
For a moment he wondered if Truevow had heard him, because he did not turn from looking into the west. But his reaction, when it came, was something like shock. His head jerked back towards Fox, his lips parted in surprise, and his eyebrows shot up on his forehead.
“Back in the Anarchy?”, he asked, and Fox noticed that his repetition even matched Fox’s accent. (The people from the Empire all spoke with a marked accent, which he had not noticed until he came here. He often heard the boys imitating it, and was amazed how well they did it.)
“I would rather be buried alive!”, he cried now. “The Anarchy was a place of moral death, Fox, a sty of greed and lust and shallowness. Nothing in all mankind’s history is as noble as our rejection of it.” Then his voice fell again, and he said: “I just wonder what waves move through that great sea of humanity now, that’s all. I just wonder what the great poets of the moment write about. But would you dig up a putrid corpse to see what sort of clothes it had been buried in?”
The comparison didn’t seem like a very good one to Fox, but the whole subject was forgotten in the next moment, when a deep howl echoed through the stark landscape.
Fox’s blood turned cold in a moment, and he felt an absurd desire to run back towards the settlements. As if his legs could carry him there without giving way after a few miles.
“Don’t be troubled”, said Truevow, though he looked far from untroubled himself. He scanned the horizon, and his voice fell to a near-whisper. “That’s just the frolic bears.”
“Bears?”, asked Fox, who had never seen such a thing, but had heard plenty of ghoulish stories about them from Jasma. He moved closer to Truevow, almost giving in to the urge to hug him with fear.
“That’s just what we call them”, said Truevow, and he put his hand on Fox’s head, reassuringly. Fox usually hated it when people did that. Now he didn’t mind at all. “They’re not really bears. I’m not sure exactly what they are. They’re like a cross between…oh…giant dogs and squirrels.”
“Squirrels?”, asked Fox, instinctively looking up at the few trees that dotted the horizon.
“Well, they hop about like squirrels”, said Truevow, in an unsteady voice, as if he doubted his own description. “But the thing is, they don’t attack men. They tend to avoid us, as a matter of fact. I’m surprised to hear them here at all. They usually stay further off, beyond that range of hills there”, he said, waving his arm towards a high wall of grey slopes in the north.
“They sound frightening”, said Fox, wondering if Truevow could see his goose pimples.
“They sound like a thousand dead men crying for the sons they never saw”, said Truevow. Fox guessed it was from a quotation from one of his own poems. Truevow looked rather disappointed when he did not comment upon it.
It was barely getting dark, but Fox convinced his temporary master to camp for the night. The tent was surprisingly simple to put up. Fox couldn’t pierce the stony ground with the stakes, but Truevow hammered them in effortlessly. His arms were as slender as a girls’, Fox noticed.
Fox was surprised by how cold the evening felt, now that they were no longer moving. The day had been so warm. But in a few minutes Truevow had sparked up a fire, and they sat outside the tent wrapped in the long Ezwayna body-blankets called antra. The wool of the antra was so soft and warm, it was a physical pleasure like food or drink. Soon the glow of the fire and the hug of the antra had cheered Fox up, and he felt almost glad to be out in these immense spaces with Truevow.
“How often have you hunted for the Blue Stag, Truevow?”, he asked, sipping the minty tea that his guide had brewed, and chewing on the tough biscuits they had brought for the search.
“Never before”, said Truevow. “I had no desire to be the man who caught it, though I never doubted the prophecy was true.”
“Why didn't you want to catch it?”, asked Fox, who couldn’t imagine Truevow not lusting after glory.
“Because of the prophecy”, Truevow replied, still chewing a hearty mouthful of biscuit. “The man who sets eyes on the Blue Stag will decide the fate of the Ezwayna. I do not covet such an awesome charge.”
“I mean,” said Truevow, casting about in his mind for simpler language, “that I’m frightened of the responsibility. I’m not wise enough to tell my people what to do.”
“But what would you tell them, if you could?”, asked Fox, feeling curious. “If you bring back the Stag, then you have to tell them something.”
Truevow fell silent, gazing into his tea cup, and finally replied: “I would try to cure them of their cruelty. They think they have left it behind in the Anarchy, but they brought it with them.”
The frolic bear howled again, and Fox tried to believe that such a savage-sounding thing could be harmless. And even if it was, who knew what other creatures roamed these heights? Maybe his own life was in more danger than Grandy’s.
Nice work Maolsheachlann. I'm especially liking the character development for Truevow,ReplyDelete
Thanks! He developed quite spontaneously, actually!ReplyDelete