The Seer – Snippet 36
At the sound of the voice, Amarta felt a shock of familiarity. Where had she heard it before? Memory of the past, or glimpse of the future? She could not tell.
“No business here, ser. We only pass through.”
Amarta tried to see the face of the large man atop the dark horse, but could not. His back was to her.
“Where are you going?”
“The markets of Munasee,” answered Jolon. “To trade and sell. If there is anything remaining, perhaps on to Perripur.”
“Captain,” said a new voice, and Amarta managed to move a little to see a soldier on foot. “The town council and families have barricaded themselves in the basement of the mayor’s mansion.”
“Did you explain that it is the king’s will that they put themselves in our custody?”
“Say it again. Slowly and loudly, so there is no confusion.”
“Then break down the door and drag them out?” The soldier’s voice had an eager edge to it.
A pause. “No. Burn it.”
“Give them a count of ten to come out and then burn the mansion.”
“So that they come out, Captain?”
“No, so that they die. No one comes out.”
“But…” Another voice. “They have children there, too, ser.”
“Good. I want the townspeople who are standing watching to clearly understand what comes of disobeying the king’s orders.”
Sound of footsteps departing.
Another voice: “Shall we inspect the Teva wagons, Captain?”
“What do you say?” This from Mara, who was standing just outside Amarta’s field of vision. “You cannot, we are –“, she stopped suddenly. From a slight movement, Amarta guessed Jolon put a hand on her shoulder. Jolon slipped off his horse to his feet and turned to the captain, hands wide and open.
“We offer no challenge, Captain. We only want the road. We are Teva, friends to your king and empire some three hundred years.”
“I know this,” the captain said. After a moment he tilted his head toward the wagon in which the three of them hid. “What exactly do you transport, Teva?”
“Shall we take a quick look, Captain?” Again, the eager tone.
Apparently the captain’s hesitation was taken as approval; one of his men dismounted and left Amarta’s sight, walking in the direction of their wagon. She pulled back, looking alarm at Dirina.
Jolon laughed — a loud, hearty laugh, full of such sincerity that it drew Amarta back to the pinhole to look. Through the opening she saw that she was not alone in this; everyone had stopped to look at him. She very much hoped that included the man who had been walking toward them.
“Let me show you, Captain,” Jolon said, still sounding amused.
A long moment later the back flap pulled open. Dirina flattened and cringed, Pas tucked under her, while Amarta kept her hand clamped tight around the ripped opening.
Jolon looked around inside the wagon as if they were not there at all. He dug under the hay and blankets, bringing out a cloth-wrapped package. Then he dropped the flaps and left.
Back in front of the captain, all eyes were on Jolon as he unwrapped the item, then held it up.
It was a hand-high statuette of a shaota horse, painted in chestnut and clay colors, the tones and stripes matching the animals, who looked on curiously. After a moment, the captain reached down and took the offered item.
“Teva children,” Jolon explained, “they paint these. The figures are well-loved in Munasee and Perripur among the high houses.”
“And anyone can have one,” the captain said. “Unlike the horses themselves.”
Jolon ducked his head in agreement. “They sell so fast we cannot make enough. Also these flutes.” With this he held up a small, round item that hung around his neck. “I will play. It makes the shaota laugh. Watch?”
Not far off, a shout turned into a shriek, then a keen howl, which cut off abruptly, sending chills down Amarta’s spine. She admired the way Jolon reacted not at all, simply waiting until the voice was done before he put the palm-sized oval to his lips and blew. It was a loud, high note, followed by a rapidly descending cascade of sounds. Behind him one of the shaota opened its mouth and made a similar throaty sound.
Jolon had been right: it almost sounded like laughter.
At this a few of the soldiers standing around also laughed.
“Captain?” came a new voice.
“This man is the grain silo keeper. He says he can give you a list of names of the guilty.”
“I can!” A strained voice. “I want immunity, ser Captain. A full list — everyone who spoke in favor of breaking with the crown’s grain contract. Every name. I swear it on the harvest — all the harvests — for all of time, and –”
“Yes, yes,” the captain said, waving the man to silence.
He looked at Jolon thoughtfully a moment. “Be on your way, Teva. Nalas, take a demi-squad and escort them through town. Make sure they get through without incident.” He held the shaota casting down to Jolon from his horse.
“No, no,” Jolon said, hands up to refuse. “A gift, Captain. For you. Or your king. As you see fit.” With that, Jolon gave a small bow.
Only after the voices and smell of smoke were long gone did Amarta dare release the ripped seam she had been clamping shut with her hand all this time, and only then did Dirina let Pas out from under her.
On they went, horses and wagons, continuing south. A day later, forest gave way to wide lakes and bogs, then a day more and it was farms and fields again, quiet pastures of goats and geese. Then the land turned rocky and spare, with scrub and thick, squat trees that hung low, offering up furry red berries. As the days passed, Dirina and Amarta managed to repair all the rips in the wagon tarp.
Now the ground was a pale, milky-colored rock, dusted with sand, the grasses meager, the small plants few. At last they stopped.
Jolon pulled back the opening. “We are arrived. Gather your things and come.”
They emerged to find the wagons in a small clearing surrounded by rocky rises of gray and ocher rock shot through with lines of orange and tan. A crow called loudly; another answered.
The shaota were gone, as were most of the Teva. Those remaining unhitched the wagon from the carthorses.
Seeing her confused expression, Mara said, “You will see.”
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came a handful of people. Amarta stared at them in shock.
Their hair was pale yellow, eyes the color of sky. Amarta had never seen such a thing before, had not even known it could exist. Dirina drew Pas close.
“Mama?” Pas pointed and looked up at her.
“Shh”, she replied, taking his pointing hand in her own.
The pale-haired people and remaining Teva began to unload the barrels and sacks and hay that had been Amarta and Dirina’s home these last handful of days, hefting them on shoulders and into handcarts, then taking them along a path that vanished around a small rise. No one spoke.
The carthorses were led away. Finally Jolon and Mara slung bags over their shoulders and motioned Amarta and Dirina and Pas to follow.
Around the rise the land sloped steeply down a dry creekbed, rocky banks rising on either side. The ravine snaked through one blind curve after another and ended at a large boulder. Only when they reached the boulder did she see the small opening beyond. They followed the Teva into a cave.
Mara took her hand as they walked in, indicating she should take Dirina’s, and led them into the darkness. The way led forward and down. As her eyes adjusted, she saw the pale-haired people moving around and watching them from openings in the walkway.
Points of dim lamps. The flicker of candles. No voices.
Mara’s hand stopped Amarta, and she in turn stopped Dirina. They were now in a large room with many low tables at which other of the pale-heads sat, now turning to look at them. Long shelves on the walls, filled with jars and cookpots and crates and barrels.
They stood beside Mara and Jolon, facing five of the pale-headed people, whose heads seemed the brightest thing in this dim, lamp lit room. Pas clutched Amarta’s hand tightly.
Of the five they faced only a woman rocking an infant in her arms smiled back at them. Her blond hair fell in long, snakelike ropes down her shoulders. Her baby gripped one.
An elder man and woman spoke to Mara and Jolon in a language Amarta didn’t know. The woman’s pale hair was cut nearly to the scalp; the man’s was blond to the ends, where it went abruptly dark.