We mounted our horses in gray dawn and headed out with our saddlebags full. We rode through many sleepy stirring streets of the City, past merchants setting up stalls for the day’s business. I felt their eyes upon me, and I felt more than saw that the foreign Prince riding quietly by my side noted everything. I had to stop once as a woman ran up with a hot loaflet from her oven to press it into my unwilling hands. She said nothing but her eyes seemed wetly brilliant in the early pale gold sunlight that came over the City. I touched her hand in thanks but I had no idea what to say. She smiled, pulling her shawl back over her coppery hair then stepped back.
A street later I decided to make the best of it and tore my bread in half, tossing one part to the Prince. We ate as we walked on, climbing the slowly rising streets towards the Fortress. I stopped for a cup of hot tea for each of us, but to my embarrassment the vendor would not let me pay for that either. Nor would he let my hand touch his. I wonder still what he did with the cup I used.
When we passed the Fortress and took a smaller road East of the gray buildings, I felt Evandir’s interest rise.
“We shall return another way,” I said. “Probably with Master Mell and one or two of your companions. Mell and your friend Aquitain will be coming later, for Master Mell doesn’t like too early a start. With whom was your Knight Rebmun quartered?”
“A man called Grassmaster in the City.”
“Then he will share this part of the visit tomorrow,” I said, and did not try to make further conversation as our road began to climb. Around us rose jagged fluted peaks of gray rock, for we had long left the warm sandstones of our lower valley. Trees still struggled to maintain their existence in sheltered crevices, but they grew stunted, dark and spare in foliage as we climbed through the narrowing way. Finally I dismounted. Without my urging the Prince did likewise. We went on until we came at last to the pass itself at the height of road. From it I pointed down perhaps a quarter mile to the road below.
“That is the passage for our return,” I said. “It is broader and as you see, filled with traffic. Wagons and goods of many kinds. Now look about you, Prince of Saahr, and see where you stand. No army can come over these gray mountains, for not even a single man with ropes can cross the distance between these natural barricades and the next pass to the East. To the West, likewise — there is no relenting of these furrowed folded lavas that tear the skin and clothes and ropes of the ambitious. This pass and the road below are the only ways open and they lead only between our Inner Lands and the City of the Wall.”
He looked, and I swear I saw delight first upon his face before he could bring himself to think of material considerations. Then memory of his real position darkened his expression. The wind blew in our faces, and I studied his uneven features, blunt with use and abuse.
“Consider,” I said. “As we descend you will see from the next overlook how our Inner Lands spread before us and how they, like some gap unmended in the fabric of these mountains, are also defended in all directions by savage rocks. It is the nature of this gap that supplies the Inner Lands with water, so there is no hope of any army interfering with its water supply. We do not depend upon rains here. Water rises from the ground, and runs down the little valleys into the rich land that can and has supplied the City of the Wall for an eternity of sieges.”
I thought I heard him sigh and when I looked again on his now familiar face, he stared into the wind with a regret I could only guess at, his eyes narrowed as his hand idly patted the neck of his bay horse. I moved forward then, eager to place the remainder of our argument before him. As we descended to the overlook it opened out to us in all the beauty of an autumn day, the air as clear as air can be, cold in one’s mouth with the sweetness of season’s end. A taste like watermelon, and a rush of wind satisfying as drink. Far above us rooks circled and played in updrafts, calling each to each. He looked for a long time before he turned to me.
“Yes,” he said, “a beautiful land. And you have brought the people of many invading armies to see this and they have stood here like the Emperors of the Sky and seen your Inner Lands lying so well concealed here. Why have we not heard great rumor of how you are situated impregnable among the mountains?”
“You have, I suspect,” I suggested, “or your advisors have, and not believed. What commander would judge the likelihood of invasion without first seeing for herself the country’s lie? Then there is the fact that some of those enemies who have walked this way with me have upon consideration burned their swords and taken allegiance to my Wall and to our King.”
He raised an eyebrow and his lips tightened in a thin smile.
“What a dream,” he said. “What a fantasy.”
He pulled at an old clump of tall yellow grass stems, and looked out again over the deep cliff. Then he shrugged as if he put aside some thought and he turned again to me, all focused in the present.
“Well then,” he said, “On our descent to your Inner Lands, let me hear some little bit more about you, Ti of the Wall, and why you have a horse fit for a prince, and both the love and terror of the city folk. What is the burden you bear that makes them either crave to touch you or fear it above all things?”
He had a hard time at the first, learning these matters from me, but the trip down from overlook to pass lasted several hours and he had both patience and skill in unraveling my evasions. So he knew much more than I would have willed before we entered the last mile of the way.
“So there is one thing I don’t understand, what part does this wise man Thane Gehir play in your story? He is your husband?” He tossed his query with a strange emphasis, “or your lover? Or is it more important than that?”
I lifted my scarred palm.
“He holds my First Oath,” I said, “and I have never burnt my sword.”
He tossed the straggling hair back from his face and rode on in silence a little, his blunt face thoughtful.
“Then how is it that you are of the Wall in any way? How could you be Corpsmaster of the Wall? Or do you have some other undeclared occult power? I tell you, you would be burned in my country for this healing, especially of a naiman, and you not even a proper magician or priest.”
He looked at me just as he said this and caught the expression that crossed my face as I remembered my trial with sudden brutal vividness.
“You nearly were?” he suggested. “Tell me.”
“They wanted my hands taken as assurance I would not commit healing again,” I said. “Or some of them did. The priest of JeKri commended the Four-Way Death in Methen Square.”
“The Four-Way Death?”
“It is a form of disembowelment. Performed skillfully it can take two hours or so.”
“How entertaining,” Evandir remarked. “We have a similar thing but I think it might last a little longer. We have a Guild that is trained in dedication for such work.”
His lips pressed tightly together.
“So have you grilled me sufficient to your cause?” I asked him, smiling a little. “I believe no other guest has ever made me talk so much, though it may be my own fault for taking you on the East Road. Usually we do not bother with this trail, but only use the Transport Road below.”
He looked at me quizzically again, but I thought his expression again regretful and wondered at the cause.
“I have found this trip more than worth the while,” he said simply, but he said nothing else as we went on and into the Port City of the Inner Lands. There the rivers of the Inner Lands converge, and serve in their passage to transport goods and animals raised in the great green bowl beyond. We found the inn where I had arranged to meet Mell and her guest and they had booked us rooms in the King’s name, as well as extensive orders for a memorable meal. We had fresh fish of the rivers, famous for its great size and white flesh, followed by pigeons under covers and a fry of mushrooms. Most attractive to me were the vegetables, braised and raw, sautéed and slivered. Salads of crisp leaves, golden winter squash baked in its black skin until as nutty and sweet as the chestnuts of legend, the succulence of silver beet greens cooked with blue cheese, and the violent intensity of dry roasted beets with onions.
“Don’t you find it a problem having so many men under your command?” Mell asked, when our first hunger had blunted.
“In what manner?” Evandir paused, lamplight outlining the crooked line of his nose. “Do you mean the quantity?”
“No, their sex. Aren’t they easily distracted? Fractious? Frivolous and quick to quarrel? It has seems to me that we are better equipped for war, having more women who steady the few men in our ranks.”
I heard Aquitan start to laugh and saw by the smile on Mell’s mouth that she had meant to tease. Evandir pretended a moment of outrage before he also gave in to laughter.
“I really do find it odd,” Mell said when we were quiet again, “that you give such a hidden role to your women at home. Not enough freedom. I would be disobedient under a like rule, all jokes aside.”
“But you and the Corpsmaster are both people of the City of the Wall, and so you must be used to obedience,” Aquitan said, his lenses catching the light as he took another large forkful of mushrooms.
“I am obedient to my oath,” Mell said. “If you denied me the honor of holding an oath, I would have no obligation to obey.”
“So you will serve all your active days,’ Evandir said, as if he wished to turn the point, “whether or not you take a spouse and bear children or not as the gods allow? Teaching those who are younger, defending your Wall, City, and Inner Lands that lie beyond.
“And when you are finally relieved of duty do they turn you out to pasture here, in this Paradise of the Inner Lands?” Evandir cracked a pigeon bone for the marrow.
“Not at all,” I answered him. “We have not the skills to hold land grants on this side of the pass. Master Mell here and myself have our futures written in another fashion, if…”
“If, of course, you survive to read them,” Evandir interrupted.
“Quite,” I assented. I had eaten something more than my normal meal and pushed back my chair, but even as I did so I saw what I did not at first believe, and bounded to my feet, my hand outstretched.
“Thane Gehir!” I shouted over all the noise of the tavern, and I saw his shadowed face turn from me into the secrecy of his hood as he faded out of the door. I raced from the table, my heart pounding with the desperate need to catch him, to speak again with him, to tell him of my Queen’s plight and how far we had all fallen. I would have begged him by my First Oath to advise us all. Out in the street I saw no sign of him, no familiar cant of shoulders under a cloak, no peaked hood even. Still I ran out a little ways, casting into the adjoining streets to no avail.
When I reentered the tavern there came a little hush as there does when a group recognizes a disturber, but after my notoriety as a healer on the other side of the mountains, I did not find that so hard to outface as I went back to our table. None of my companions spoke immediately as I sat back down. Finally Prince Evandir looked up from under his brows.
“Definitely,” he remarked as if referring to an earlier comment, “more important,” and the corner of his long mouth twitched upwards in something like a tight smile.
Mell had been looking guarded again, as if she waited for some signal or opportunity, and now she took her turn.
“I trust I do not offend if I ask a more personal question,” she said, looking at Prince Evandir. “Since you are of an age, might I assume you left a lady wife behind in the Kingdom?”
Evandir’s eyebrows rode up but Aquitan answered mockingly.
“Two, actually,” he said.
“Enough,” Evandir growled at him, and I almost expected him to cast a kick under the table as one might at any teasing friend. “You will lead them to think us barbarians. Both my wives are dead; we do not have polygamous marriage so I lost each in turn.”
“I share your sorrow,” Mell said quickly, rather apologetically.
“No,” Prince Evandir replied, “probably not. Each married me for political ends, the first died in a scarlet plague that ran through our cities ten years ago, before we had been espoused a twelvemonth. The second, I knew a little better, we had three years of mutual discomfort before she died of a growth.”
“You showed great kindness to her,” Aquitan said, no longer joking. ” and you shed a great many more tears for her sufferings than many would over the death of a friend. For my part, I’d have been no more sorry for the death of a goat. As for me, my wife is a trouble to me though healthy and very beautiful, and we do better apart. She is first cousin to the king and always looking for advancements I do not desire. But the Prince Evandir here, though only a nephew to King Saahr, will not long remain unwed. His uncle shall see to his connections. Prince Evandir needs more lands. He has given away more than any sensible man would have; all these needy cousins and nephews.”
“They were more trouble as beggars. Lice, fleas, itchy creatures ever after me for more blood. If I bought them off with land, it was peace at a bargain price. Land troubles me. It needs care and attention. And as you say, my friend, I can always marry more acres, but later, later, maybe when my days of war have ended.”
No one seemed to want to talk after that, so we sat and listened to the tides of conversation and music that came and went in the tavern until Evandir rose, stamping his feet as if to wake them.
“More lessons tomorrow, I daresay,” he commented, “so I’m for my bed.”
I can sleep when I want, in nearly any circumstance or condition. However this night as I lay before the door of Prince Evandir’s room, I did not want to do so. I felt that I had to take time to think and sort, and resolve upon some action. The Prince had told me he regretted insulting me by calling me a lightskirt; a person with a flexible oath, but I felt it was possible he should have laid that curse on me and left it, there instead of apologizing. Of course he could not know why.
In an army you cannot have discussion over orders. No army that has survived into history has had any such indulgence. So when an oath is sworn, it is permanent and inarguable, unless the oathed deliberately and publicly burns her sword in token of the break. Any chain of command must be inviolable, or we all die. Obedience must be perfect, whether in light or darkness carried out to its end.
But what was our oath and how was it made? Mine aside, of course, for I was the other, the alien of the group. Quillson had it right when he said that all I had ever wanted to be was to be what I had never become, a warrior who knew to whom she belonged, who knew her place within her group.
As I thought back, staring at the dim hallway ceiling, I thought of the matter differently from the other times it had haunted me. For the Oath my fellows had was to the Wall, held, assuredly by the King, but he as the vessel of the will of the people. That was why upon his death his successor would hold the oath as surely as if we had all bled together upon it. Was I arguing like some priest or lawyer, to get around guilt? Everyone has reasons for what they do. That is why we need our oaths. That is why I speak of a perfect obedience.
Mell and I had not spoken together privately since leaving the Wall to go over the pass with our guests and I could not help wondering how she could sleep so soundly a little ways down the hall from me where she guarded Lord Aquitan’s door. My mind wandered back to the problem of her delay in marrying Quillson and I began to imagine that possibly she had plans to step down early from the Wall and take the position among Academics that she had already had offered her.
I came back at last to the long odd day I had just spent, but I heard the watch crying out the hour in the street below and knew it was late to still be waking with all that remained to be done in this new day, and so I set myself to sleep.
We made an early start of traveling the next day, and this time the company felt subdued to me. All of Prince Evandir’s questions seemed to be for factual purposes only, and Aquitan stayed quiet. We met up with Grassmaster, bodyguard and guests, both Knight Rebmun and the man with the braided beard who was known as GrosRupel, but our paths did not run far together. After that, I decided to ask questions in my own turn.
“I have seen the numbers of civilians, the women in a manner of impractical dress, and children and babies too, that seem to have followed your army,” I said. “I have seen something like this before in the greater of our foes, often those who came long distances. I have never before had the leisure to ask a guest, nor the ease to query what they do here. What are they to you? ”
“Camp followers,” said Lord Aquitan. “The soldiers mostly have families that travel with the army, a little behind it, because they bring stores of food and belongings that the foot soldier needs for his providence.”
“These are wives and children then?”
“Yes, or lightskirts, a number of them as well. It is a hard life.”
“Curious that I thought you protected your women,” Mell remarked. “This sounds a harder life than any of our soldiers know, unless you purchase food and other supplies for them?”
“No, we don’t,” Prince Evandir’s smile became even more crooked. “And you are right, Master Mell, in that we have degrees of courtesy and protection. Not all the members of any group are equal in the treatment they obtain.”
“I had rather be an armed warrior any day,” Mell said brusquely, “than one of these ‘camp-followers’ you describe. All the work and no Oath.”
“They are not so helpless,” Lord Aquitan remarked, “and some love the freedom of the life. I have known some such who would as gladly scold me for carelessness with my men’s lives as scavenge the fallen enemy. We would not keep the army with us for long if they had to leave all their loved ones and comforts behind. Who would do laundry, who would scour the countryside for the stray pigs and chickens that supplement the soldier’s rations, who would nurse the wounded if all soldiers kissed their wives good-bye at the doors of little cottages far far away?”
I could only shake my head.
“And you should see how they admire this one,” Aquitan said with a wicked chuckle, settling in to give Prince Evandir a hard time. “They say Evandir the Broken-Nosed is the sweetest commander ever set before their men, and they cheer him. They like the fact he doesn’t command from the rear, like his predecessor. He’s the one who gets the extra eggs they freed from some wayside hen, and he thanks them as prettily as if they were ladies.”
“Enough,” Prince Evandir growled. “Give over to some sensible talk, Aquitan, before I take it out of your lenses. A fine pass you’d be at then. Blind as a mole.”
“Who is this Knight Rebmun?” I asked. “He appears to be a mighty warrior, both in size and the way he carries himself.”
“Your little Corpsmaster Ti, seems to be obsessed by size,” Prince Evandir addressed Master Mell. “However this time you have spoken of the mightiest of warriors ever seen upon the field. He has not only massive thews but a rapidity of motion that violates all expectation. In the early days when our King first turned his mind to conquest, again and again it was the will and incredible prowess of this Knight that carried battle after battle. Men joked that he could have taken kingdoms on his own.”
“I suppose those years caused the injuries that make him hide his face from the weak-stomached?
“So I am told. He had such prowess by the time I joined him on the battlefield that I have not myself seen him injured in any engagement. In the Kingdom he wears a mask when he is without his helm.”
“So have you seen his natural face?”
“He would say it was a natural face no more. Yes. I hear tell he lays aside both visor and the mask when with the King, who has grown accustomed to the features so disabled in his service.”
“That seems only right and courtly in the King,” Mell commented with an edge of sarcasm.
“So tell me of your King,” I said to Lord Aquitan. “You have served him all your days?”
“No,” Aquitan said in his warm voice, “that is not the way we go to war. We swear our service to our war captain.”
“Oh, the Knight Rebmun,” Mell suggested with suspicious innocence.
“Never,” Lord Aquitan cut her off with less than his customary grace. “No. Knight Rebmun is the delegate of Saahr, his presence among us, you might say, even his voice, but this army belongs to Prince Evandir.”
“Who is in his turn oathed to King Saahr?”
“Or as we would say, the King of Saahr… It is more than a simple oath, by which he holds me.” Prince Evandir said quietly. “He has been as a father to me from the time I was barely five years of age. The King of Saahr, Corramund of Saahr: my uncle.
“You ask of him. He has stern ways, a warrior grown old in war, now grim with usage, his heart still striving for glory and for strength. The coming of Knight Rebmun served as his second beginning. He is a just man,” Evandir’s voice lowered. “The Knight Rebmun would not hold authority if the King had found me the stronger.”
“So,” I said, “it is the Knight Rebmun whose mind we must influence.”
For the first time neither Prince Evandir nor Aquitan answered. Not a word or a look.
You must understand that at this point I expected the company to be subdued. After the sight of our resources and the invulnerable geology of our country, most commanders would be quiet, trying over in their minds more and more extravagant options for their future attack. Any commander would find our country and its possessions more desirable, not less, after the view of the Inner Land. But military reality made some admit even before formal negotiations, that they could no longer entertain the idea of an attack upon us.
In any historical account of other lands, I have read that besiegers should carry the victory, so long as their own supply lines are secure. In our case when all we needed lay hidden behind us, and the keyhole to it stood so narrow, we could for courtesy or challenge engage in battle, always knowing that as Master Mell had said earlier, we had only to retreat into our shell like a little snail and wait if necessary until our attackers ran low of spirit and supply lines grew too attenuated and vulnerable to the bandits Outside.
In fact the most effective strategy we had ever suffered from was that of the scaws with their bladders of the great plague. Now as we turned on our way back through the pass, I found myself troubled increasingly by the simple dedication and resolve I read in these two guests. I began to sense that nothing I could show, and no argument, could alter the plan they and their armies followed. And the only approach I could imagine that would profit their purpose would be the use of a similar tactic as that used by the people of the scaws, but this time using perhaps some disease or poison none of us had yet suffered or survived.
I wanted to think them honorable, yet what after all, did I know of any of them or the country from which they came? I might have assumed, guessed, filled in the text of my own preferences in their silences or glances. I presumed them to be soldiers, warriors like myself, fighters I respected and even perhaps liked. But in the end I had only what they themselves said, what I saw, and the warnings from Grassmaster and Quillson of the City. We ended our ride in silence at the barracks.