Eshe Parlan, Femella
Eshe had yet to say to herself they were dead. To admit their death was to admit it also could have been her. Murdered. Slaughtered. In the act of waking. No chance to defend as her life was swiftly ended. She saw the blood again, spurting, but allowed herself no emotional response. She allowed herself no thought either beyond ‘she had fled’. She had fled, riding through the night not daring to stop lest they were following – though they had probably mistaken her for a goble-lad and they’d find no gold on her. Yet, ironic, and the joke was on them, for of the party, she was the only one to carry the gold. She refused to dwell upon that thought as well.
Darkness swamped her as first Medusa then Euryale set. But if she kept the chill of the Ridge to her left and the solid blackness of Umenkat Forest to her right, and strayed not into there . . . It was said the tall grasses there, of every variety, were host to insects of many varieties. But no matter the variety, they all were poisonous. And abutting it was Sisny Moss. She sweated just at the thought. There’d be a teeming mass of amphibs there. But she could ignore Moss and Forest if she kept heading east.
East. At least she was still on her way to Lecheni. She noted her sarcasm. She wanted to scream to the sky, that she would rather be in Parlan House, rather be in Raselstad, safe. Return her there and she would even agree to marry, if that would undo what was done.
Marriage. Wives. Hibernal’s. She must not think of it. But that woman had not an inkling of what had happened. She wouldn’t know until he failed to return. By all the god’s, she wanted so badly to go home. Yet she was too scared to turn round.
At some time in the night, Muzzle’s hooves as they regularly thudded upon the deep loam lulled her to sleep. At least, she found herself waking, eyes opening to a sun that was rising. She rode on.
She would not think now of her return. Was that, too, a denial of what had happened? But her father had set her a task, specific, and so she would do it. That’s what she would think of, and only of that. She would do as requested and so would get through it. What might happen after, that was long away yet. Yes, that was the way to get through this, that was the way to do it.
Eventually Muzzle refused to go farther. He needed to rest, and though they were still between Ridge and Forest and she was in high anxiety of being there, she couldn’t deny him. But she no longer had a tent, nor the makings. She huddled into the jasckte-wool cloak; it was waterproof and as long as the temperature didn’t drop too low, it was warm. She had food. She had stashed it away in her bag, away from Pinta. At the thought . . . again, the blood spurting. Had it been his? Her appetite spoiled, she slept instead.
She had a whimsical notion – this was the next day. If she denied every miniscule memory of what had happened . . . She laughed-humved-giggled, then everything would be fine, it would not have happened. She told herself a new story. See, she had set out alone – How brave of her – But why not? She knew parts of the Ridge, some at extremely close quarters, every hand- and toe-hold. What need had she of company. No, there had been no need of Watchmen to accompany her. And there had been none of that banter of women and pigs – none to bant it. So now here she was alone, now far past where the trail that led off to Chendani Pass (notorious for its bandits). See, she had told Boddy she was going no place near to it.
The high grasses of Umenkat Forest fell away to reveal the Falls that broke the Luant.
Gods’ bods, but that took her breath away. Their size! No written description could capture this. Yes, she could quote from Geo’s book of the width – seven miles, in an arc – and the height – nine hundred feet. And who had measured that, and how had they measured it. But they were merely empty figures on paper. What of the noise, the volume of water, the force of its fall, the mist and the rainbows, the vivid green of the plants that clung to the rocks that formed the piers that cut that arc into separate bays. What of the pounding water that shook the ground – she could feel it, shaking, beneath her feet. It spooked poor Muzzle, impatient to be away though she rather would stay.
She wanted to see better the Rotashta Rocks. Had she not been on this mission . . . oh, how she so wanted to climb them. That was a danger she would eagerly accept. The Rotashta Rocks: black lava columns eroded from the softer cream limestone, now standing alone. Hundreds of them, all the same height, like rows of exclamation marks for miles and miles downriver from the Falls. It was said in many were caves. It was said in those caves were fantastical gemstones. And it was said, no amphibs frequented this stretch of the Luant – too turbulent for them. Yet she saw the lights in the water and knew what they were though she knew it only from books. They were Jacobs: a family of marine amphibs, their skin a mottle of iridescent patches. Like goblins, they’d not stray far from the water. Unlike goblins, they were not venomous though some had an anaesthetising sting. But there were other amphibs in that water, less easily seen.
The Rotashta Rocks threaded the Luant all the way to the sea, some three hundred miles of tidal waters – so said the book. But they grew ever more spindly and less impressive, and after the first two days Eshe dug in her heels and rode away, staying then on the higher, drier ground above the river.
She watched as beside her the Luant widened, barely perceptible at first, then suddenly opening so she had to squint to see the far side. Then, within but an hour, that southern bank was lost to the sea-mists that billowed like smoke from a grass-fire. The mist, though, as it wrapped around her, was icy-cold. She could not believe the change in temperature. In Luban, she’d have been wearing a thin silk dress over her trousers. Here she huddled into a rough jasckte-cloak. She had already changed into the clothes she’d brought with her.
It had not taken long to discover those clothes weren’t intended for riding; not the ankle-length cream cotton shift, nor the shapeless tube that topped it called, in their Rothi jaw, a kirtle. Neither item covered her knees once she’d mounted, too slender of cut to pull down. And the coarse brown wool of the kirtle seemed at variance with Ryal’s ‘jewels’ that caked the straps where they sat on her shoulders; the belt, too, that hung loosely around her hips. More of the fancy glass-beads were threaded to make bracelets, and yet more fell from the edges of her head-shawl. She was weighted with them like some Rothi god. Only her neck was bare. Jilli had said a necklace was a sign of marriage. Eshe had thought that no bad thing but Jilli had said no. “Invalidates your story.”
“Take time to survey the town before you enter,” Jilli had said. “It is important not to appear as a stranger. To the Rothi there are two kinds of folk. Local-born and foreigners. They’ve no liking of the latter. If they think you’re foreign, not only will they sell you nothing but they’ll rob you down to your skin. Every man, woman and child there is a thief, you would do well to remember. The land grows nothing – no good horses, no fruits as we have them and their bread, unless soaked in soup, will harvest your teeth. Oh, and if you must ask for a bath you will find you’ve a choice of water. Cold. And ice cold. And beware of the pestilence. It rides the wind in the summer. But enjoy your sojourn.”
Eshe had forced a smile and thanked her, and had wondered how much Jilli had exaggerated.
Now she reined in her horse and took a few moments to gaze across the Luant. She could see the sea breaking in high white plumes on a low spit of land that barred the estuary to as far to the south as she could see. Her eyes followed it northward. The spit joined a headland that rose up from a wide valley – just as Ryal had said. A town sprawled upon that headland. It was not as she had expected.
Jilli had said of the Rothi citadels, that they were built to the same twelve divisions as the Lubanthan townsteads – duodecimansi though everyone called them gords. Thus Eshe expected to see the same pie-shaped divisions of cropland and grazing, with their nobles’ houses, ancillary buildings and their workers’ warrens set at each centre. And if not this, then something similar to the failed gords (Boddy’s Rookeri was far from unique) with their muddle of mills and smallholdings, boat-builders and smokehouses, abattoirs, bakeries, blacksmiths, dye houses and sheds for the weaving. And the gords, the divisions, ought to abut the Hub with the shrines around it and at the centre the Council buildings.
But here wasn’t like that.
On the hill the citadel stood, square and many-towered, constructed of orange-brown stone. What was within it, she as yet couldn’t see. She could see the surrounding croplands. Between those and the citadel was the town, its buildings strung along parallel lanes. It spread apron-like, mainly to the west. There it was held in place by a tributary of the Luant, crossed by a white stone bridge. All along that river, downstream of the bridge, were a medley of boats. But whether they were huge, having multiple masts, or were small for one man, they all made the Lubanthan cockle-boats look like children’s thimbles.
Eshe took her time to study the town and the citadel. Important, if she were to avoid being taken as a foreigner. Which of the gates was the main entrance? The west. A wide lane led from the little stone bridge, winding up through the town, to that gate. She could just make out the lay of the houses to the south of that lane. Three wings built around a south-facing courtyard, all the same, no variation. And whatever they were built of, it had weathered to dark brown-black.
She took a deep breath. “Eshe, you cannot stay here. You must push on.” She glanced back along the track, and shuddered. That was something she’d face when she must. For now, she made her plans. First she must find a way onto that road.
As it happened, the track she was riding naturally joined it.
Next, it would sit better with her story not to arrive on a horse. Which meant she needed somewhere to stable it. There were stables attached to the manses. But the manses belonged to the Lecheni nobles, and it would be better that that didn’t have early word of her. Better to risk Muzzle’s well-being by stabling him somewhere in town.
The Avatar smiled on her, even though the sun was hiding. She found a tavern with stables, immediately over the bridge. The ostlier eagerly closed his fist around the coins that she offered. “He’ll be well-cared for with these.”
The coins were of gold, not the white alloy issued by the Regional Council. The Lubanthan stance on gold amused her. The metal was mined from the Ridge and a few parts of the Ghats, and then exported – every last nugget – to Rothi. For in Luban to hold it was a treasonable crime. She’d had to have a permit to carry it.
With Muzzle stabled she ought then to have found herself lodgings. That had been the original plan. According to her father and Jilli it would probably take several days, or even weeks, for her to gather the required information. Despite that suited her fine – she’d not have to pass that place again any time soon – yet she had equal horrors of staying away. She wanted to be back in Raselstad with everything familiar and safe. So she decided against playing the distressed sister. She would play it sneaky and use the Every Key. That way she ought to be in and out in only the day. Then . . . but no, there was no need yet to think about then.
She, had, however, stubbornly taken no note of the sun and now it ripped through the cloud and turned everything gold. She was leaving it late to enter the citadel, leaving it late to find what she wanted and still find herself lodgings. Sensible would be to leave this till the morrow. Yet she slung her bag over her shoulder and set off up the hill. She had read Ryal’s statement, and had talked to him. She knew where to find the duty roster – in the guard-house. And she knew where to find the guard-house – alongside the barracks. She knew where to find the barracks –above Garrison Gate, the citadel’s east gate, accessed via the south side.
The road was empty, she alone on it. At first she thought it the time of day; Raselstad Hub would be as empty in early evening. Yet there were folk about, the town wasn’t deserted. She could smell their food cooking, fatty and stale. She could see movement within the south-facing courtyards, though she would not openly look. A glance once or twice without moving her head was enough to tell her these houses – dark with their pitch-painted walls and blackened grass thatch – served also as workshops, the courtyards used for displaying their wares. But where were the people to buy them? She could hear their chatter – and the whines and grizzles of their children. She could hear the bleats of their goats – or were they sheep – and the snuffles and grunts of their pigs as they rooted around the wares in the yards. She could hear the cackle of their courtyard-kept chickens on being disturbed, and the occasional rasp of the tattageese, deep-throated and loud. There were people out and moving about. She could see them flit by as she discreetly peered down the dividing alleys. It then occurred to her.
Oops, what a lorel to advertise her out-of-town-ness. This road, leading as it did to the citadel, was eschewed by the townsfolk – oops, she meant by the hindlings and urbs.
She slipped down the next alley, saying under her breath as she went, “Actually no. Although I am not Lecheni-resident I am a hindling, local-born, and I know where to walk.”
The alley was six feet wide at the ground but the steep pitched roofs on either side fell to knee-height and in places, where the thatch was slipping, she had to turn sideways to pass between them. No plants grew in the sunless space, not even a straggle of grass. The naked soil, compacted, was slimy, and something recently had died. Bots-flies swarmed, buzzing their anger at being disturbed.
The lane at the end was a single cart width, deeply rutted and dotted with grasses. Emerging from the alley she felt newly delivered into the sun. Folk nodded to her as she passed them. She nodded too and hoped her soft-said ‘hi’ and ‘yoo’ wasn’t too friendly. No one stared at her.
But now, Curses! Her eyes were drawn to the citadel ahead and she ought not to be seen gawking at it. But – wow! The distant view didn’t prepare her for this. The structure was all vertical lines of towers and gates. Yet the stones in their courses then drew the eye out and across. At two thirds the wall’s height was a course jutting out. Supported on corbels, the wall above it could easily swallow a house.
Beneath it was a moat. Despite she had read in Ryal’s statement of how he had dived into it, she still was surprised it was there. More, she had seen from afar its water glinting. But, well, what of the goblins? There wasn’t even a guard-wall, and look, the children played near. It must be spring-fed else, like Raselstad’s bounding canals, the supply stream was heavily grilled. She followed it round to the west gate. There was a bridge over it.
Gods, but it was difficult not to stare. She was awestruck, in wonder. The sun, now to the west, cast full upon the citadel wall made the stones glow. More vibrant even than Medusa when full. The sun-cast shadows threw into relief every carved line. It was starkly geometric.
But, what, no gods? She grinned. How amusing, Here was Rothi, filled to brimming with capriciously named gods, yet here were no gods to guards the gate.
Her gaze drifted to the streaks of blue-green and sludge-yellow that stained the wall. She stifled a gasp. Those colours revealed the source of the stone. It was sandstone admixed with copper and sulphur. And she knew exactly its source. Just west of Byhen Cliff. That was some distance to haul their stone. Yet she agreed, it was of a type to withstand coastal erosion. Better by far than the softer limestone she had seen at the Falls and again here at the bridge and the moat. But, wow! Her head whizzed at the thought of the distance to bring it, and no tram-roads to transport such heavy loads. Thinking further on it, she had to chuckle. It would have been Raselstad’s own Sharmin Gord that had quarried that stone, though the Council had long ago outlawed that particular source of income.
History; she mused: the past never leaves the present alone. The gold brought in by Sharmin’s exported stone had been used to rebuild the Council buildings – after a thorough audit at Regionalstad. This she had learnt at school. How odd, that these two towns should be linked by their walls.
But it was only in that that they touched. There could be no other comparison. Raselstad, welcoming, open and sprawling; Citadel Lecheni, impersonal, big and dwarfing. The towers to either side of the gates were five storeys high, if their peep-holes marked the floors. Lecheni’s citadel was like a stone foot planted possessively and aggressively on the hillside. Though her interest was in stones and fossils, she knew what the likes of Boddy would say. That Rothi, by burying its collective head in the Good Book, had blinded itself to the Curse. Yea, she could just imagine Boddy standing here, seeing these walls and the towers, and ranting. What would he say? That here the nobles believed themselves to be gods. That was, indeed, the impression this citadel gave.
She crossed over the bridge. She passed under the gate. There were no barrack-rooms here yet there was certainly some kind of chamber above.
The citadel close opened before her. She gasped, hand coming to cover . . . but she dropped it quickly not to be seen as a stranger.
The centre was taken by a collection of towers that blazed with light. Not orange here, of sandstone, but dazzling white. The houses, with their backs to the citadel wall, in comparison, and despite their gaudy painted ornamentation, were heavy and dull.
She told herself to ignore all else, that she must find the east gate as Ryal had said. Otherwise she would have lost herself in inspecting more closely everything – particularly that tower-protected curtain-wall that she now could see wasn’t white from stone but from white glazed tiles. She could see, too, the tiles were patterned. Pictures, too, were painted on the walls of the citadel houses. Were they the missing Rothi gods?
“You look lost. Might I help?”
Eshe yelped, hands flying, heart pounding. Holding her heart to stop it escaping she turned back to look.
It was the tiredness and newness and anxiety, and that he had startled her. There was no other reason her body so warmed. It had nothing to do with his twinkling eyes, his reassuring smile, his strong broad shoulders and wide manly chest – nor with his blond hair, so rare in Luban, worn braided and jewelled and half down his back. She was trained to be this observant. He was not much her senior – at least under thirty she guessed – and but for the weight of his sparkling trappings, prinked and pimped in Rothi-style, he was dressed much like her father, in a fitted silk coat.
“I um . . .” couldn’t think what to say. She could hardly ask after the barracks. “I, um, seek lodgings.” Well it wasn’t a lie. And it was obvious now that this mission would require her to stay another day.
“The Woolpack takes travellers – The Gardens.” He nodded in the same general direction as Garrison Gate. “But The Gardens are possibly not be to your liking.”
Neither had been any of the lodgings she had passed in the town, their trade loudly announced by the raucous laughs of drunken guzzlers. Though the drinkers she could have tolerated if need be. It was that none had looked clean. So, yea, here in the citadel would be preferable to that.
She used her trail across the close to see more of the houses, choosing northward around the white glazed wall with its four thin towers. To the north-side the houses looked more cheerful. She tried to name them from Ryal’s statement and the brief chat they had had.
The first she ignored since she was walking away from it. Squatting beside the Strangers Gate, as Ryal had called it, she could easily name it as Greystone House, home of Sivator Gowen Hadd. If she were to stay here longer than a day she must master these names. The Rothi were sticklers for correct forms of address. But sivator, what did that mean? Possibly some form of steward. Boddy would know with his deep-study of the Good Book.
In the corner was House Eland. According to Ryal, behind that house was an entrance into the wall. But she must get the names right. It wasn’t just any old wall, it was the warison. And Ryal had said of a way up and through it. That was hardly surprising. She could imagine an entire gord’s population residing within. House Eland was three storeys high with a courtyard opening onto the close. Its painted panels portrayed hunted deer.
The next house hadn’t a courtyard. And it looked older and squatter and darker and duller than the others. The carved stone of its wide arched doorway was crumbling. Shore House, she named it. It could hardly be anything else with its painted panels of shells and fishes and huge-sailed-boats, all at sea.
Next was the north gate with the wide ‘Processional Way’. But why was it called that when only the west gate led to anywhere other than to the sea? But hers was not to reason. Hers was to gain the intelligence and be away.
On the far side of the gate . . . She did not mean to gawk like a stranger but, well, wow! The boar-device flanking the door announced, without doubt, that this was Two Boars House. But it was the courtyard, or rather the statues in it, that held her eyes. Were they gods? Or former elects? No, get it right. The Rothi didn’t have elects. They had lafarden legeren. And see how well she knew the lingo, even knowing the plural forms. According to Ryal’s statement this was the house of the current lafard legere, Breken by name. She forced her eyes away.
The next house looked as old as Shore and could have easily been overlooked, tucked away in its corner. Ryal had said nothing of a Bull House yet that was the device painted upon it. The bull had bells on its horns.
Next was the Woolpack Gardens.
It was possibly of the same courtyard design preferred in both town and citadel. But all she could see of it was a high painted wall broken only by a single small door, totally plain. There was not a window nor a balcony, the entire length of wall painted, not in panels as were the others, but with bright flowers on a deep red ground. She noted no woolpack device yet she must have it right since the house adjoining was undeniably Rams House. And then came Garrison Gate and the guardhouse which jutted far into the cobbled close.
Well, it was most conveniently placed for her purpose. Just a short skip across the way. But for now she was tired and a good night’s sleep in a proper bed – had they baths? She would endure the cold water.
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