Authors: Lee Duigon
He, too, like everyone in Obann, had heard of sightings of unnatural beasts. The ignorant people in the city and the crazed, self-appointed prophets in the streets said the strange beasts were omens of God’s judgment, forerunners of God’s wrath. For the first time in many years Orth wondered if the Scriptures were true, after all. It had been so long since he’d let God enter into his thoughts, he might as well not have believed in Him at all. But now the monster from the pool had made a wide breach in his indifference; and through it, God came in—an angry God who knew, even if no man knew, that Orth, who presented himself to men as God’s servant, was an apostate and a traitor: an angry God who would judge him for those sins.
“I have sinned,” thought Orth; and he noticed, for the first time, that his fingertips were cold.
At long last Lord Reesh found something for which he’d been ransacking his memories without knowing what it was.
It was his lifelong avocation to collect relics from the days of Obann’s Empire, a thousand years ago—cryptic artifacts, some of them made of materials unlike anything known to living men, for purposes that no living man could know. When he became First Prester, famous and powerful, he let it be widely known that he was interested in such things and would pay good prices for them. People brought him artifacts from all over Obann, and he kept them in a special room in the Temple.
One day, many years ago, a farmer from somewhere in the South brought him not an artifact, but a skull: a dragon’s skull, the yokel said. Certainly it was big enough to be a dragon’s skull; it took up all the room in his wagon. It had teeth like butchers’ knives and was as long as a man was tall. The lower jaw was missing. Reesh marveled at it, but because it was no manmade object, he didn’t buy it.
What else could it be, he thought at the time, but some scriptural creature that perished in the Great Shaking, ages and ages ago? The Book of Beginnings named several animals whose identities scholars could only guess at—animals that didn’t exist in Obann anymore. Probably the skull had once belonged to one of them. It was interesting, but not what Reesh was interested in. So he’d told the farmer to take it away.
It seemed now that some of those creatures hadn’t quite died off. They must have survived in other countries and now for some reason were coming back to Obann. But surely it was nothing to inspire superstitious terror, except among the ignorant.
He stole a sidelong glance at Orth. He would have to watch him carefully. The man had been a useful tool in Obann, by which Reesh had made the presters do his bidding; but taken away from the city, and from Temple politics, he was beginning to look useless.
The other man’s eyes snapped open.
“You weren’t praying, were you?” Reesh demanded.
“Praying?” Orth chuckled: there was no mirth in it. “A bit late for that—isn’t it, Excellency?”
“I was afraid the sight of that creature, a few miles back, might have undermined your courage. I hope it hasn’t.”
“I’m fine, Excellency,” Orth said. Reesh knew he was lying, but there was nothing to be done about it. Orth and Gallgoid, that was all he had—an assassin and a milksop. And the milksop would have to be the next First Prester. “At least it’s a reason to keep living!” Reesh thought.
Because they were only two dozen men in a country full of enemies, the Blays took care to scout for miles around wherever they were. Thus they discovered one day that they were within a few miles of a farming village.
“I see it myself,” Shingis told Gurun. “Little village, people and cattle and pigs. They have just made harvest of their fields. Easy to surprise them, take food and other things. Maybe take girls, too.”
Gurun tried to sound like the queens immortalized in Scripture, imperious and wise.
“No, Shingis—you will not do that,” she said. “Winter will be coming soon. What will you eat? How will you keep warm? Will you live by robberies? How can I pray to the All-Father to protect you, if you turn into thieves and pirates? And what will you do when the people send to some big city for help and soldiers in armor come to hunt you? You must be more sensible than that. Tell the men I wish to speak to them.”
Shingis called them, and they came. She had them sit on the ground before her, so they’d have farther to look up. This was what she did when she prayed for them, stretching her hands to heaven and praying loudly in the language of the islands, of which none of them understood a single word. She made a display of prayer, like a king or a prophet in the Scriptures. But she prayed sincerely, for she knew these were important prayers. She did this once a day, and the Blays said they were deeply comforted by it.
Shingis stood beside her to translate.
“Listen, you men,” she said. “You’re strangers in this land, and there aren’t many of you. It would be foolish for you to live as outlaws, when there is a much better way.
“I will send Tim to the village, along with Shingis, to tell them that we are nearby, but mean them no harm. Instead, we would like to live among them, if only for the winter. We shall protect them from outlaws: with the Thunder King’s army broken up, the country must be full of them. The village will need protection. All we shall ask in return is food and shelter. Tell them we pray to the same God they do. Let Tim talk to them, and then come back and tell me what they say. I am your queen, and those are my wishes.”
The Blays discussed it among themselves. By now Gurun had learned enough of their language to understand that they were surprised by her plan, but not averse to it. It was something they hadn’t thought of for themselves.
“Queen, we do as you say,” Shingis said, when the men had reached a decision. “It is a good saying. It do no harm to try. That’s what Blays think.”
Gurun treated them to her most radiant smile and curtseyed to them. “Tell my people that their queen is pleased with them, and the All-Father will be pleased, too. They shall earn His favor by this.”
Shingis bowed. “We always try to please All-Father, while we are in His country.”
“All countries, Shingis, are His,” she said.
Gurun said a silent prayer, asking God to forgive her for acting like a queen and a prophet, when she was no such thing. “I know these Blays are skreelings, ignorant Heathen,” she prayed, “but I can’t see that they are evil. They are the protection you have given me in this strange land. Please, All-Father, help me to do right.”
As poor as the people were in the northern islands, they were rich in Scriptures. They’d made very many copies on sheepskin, although they were not rich in sheep. There were True Copies, which only sages knew how to read, and Common Copies, rendered into the people’s own language so everyone could read them. Bertig owned common copies of all the books of Scripture. When the reciter visited, he taught Bertig’s children out of those books. But of course only the true copies were authoritative, and sometimes common copies had to be burned because a copyist had deviated too far from the original.
Before the end of the day, Tim and Shingis returned from the village.
“They’ve invited us to stay the night with them,” Tim said. “They want to meet you and to question you. I suppose that’ll be all right.”
“Nice village,” Shingis said. “Like villages back home.”
They all went down to the village. It had a mill on a stream that would eventually find its way south to the Imperial River, barns for the cattle, chicken coops, and little thatch-roofed houses. As small as it was, it was bigger than any settlement on Fogo Island. Low, forested hills looked over its fields.
The people were gathered to see them, the men all holding rakes and scythes—meant as weapons, Gurun thought. There were more of them than there were of the Blays, and the women and children stood in a crowd behind the men. If Gurun had known anything about warfare, she would have recognized the villagers as easy prey. The Blays did.
An old man with a wispy white beard stepped forth to greet them.
“Welcome to Jocah’s Creek,” he said. “We are told you come in peace. We would not have believed this, but the man of Obann swore that it was true.”
“Of course it’s true,” Tim said. “This is Gurun, who comes from a far country in the North that I never heard of. Came here on a boat, across the sea, if you can believe it. And these men are the Blays, who come from far away in the East. We’ve been with them for a while, and they’ve done us no harm.”
“I can see the girl is as you said: not Obannese,” the old man said. “My name is Loyk. I’m headman here. There’s no one else to speak for us. The nearest chamber house is in a town called Humber, fifteen miles down the creek. The reciter hasn’t come here for two weeks. No one knows when he will come again.”
“What’s the nearest city with an oligarch and a militia?” Tim asked.
“You’d have to go all the way to Trywath.”
Gurun spoke up. “Loyk, my people come in friendship. If you let us stay, you may have need of us someday. My Blays can work, but they can fight, too.”
“They came to Obann as enemies,” Loyk said. “They came here in the army of the Heathen.”
“They’re on their own now,” Gurun said.
Loyk gave her a cold, hard smile. “I’m afraid we all are, these days.”
Gurun, Tim, and Shingis supped with Loyk and his sons and their wives and children. There was hardly room for all of them in Loyk’s house, although it was the biggest house in the village. The rest of the Blays, by twos, were guests at other houses. Shingis promised Gurun they’d behave themselves.
“Usually it would be impossible for us to feed so many guests,” Loyk said, “but this year’s harvest was the best we’ve ever known. We have more than enough to carry us through the winter.”
“Provided we’re not burned out by brigands,” Loyk’s eldest son said.
Already several villages that they knew of had been wiped out by marauders. From Obann, the Thunder King’s host had fled in all directions. There wasn’t enough militia to protect any but the biggest towns.
“We’ve heard the Temple’s gone—destroyed by fire, and the First Prester killed,” Loyk said. “How such a thing could happen, no one knows. The great city still stands, but how long can it last without the Temple? The heart of Obann has been cut out.
“We have no one now to lead us in our prayers. No prester will set foot outside a walled town. Nor can we farmers leave our lands. But we have heard, Gurun, that you lead prayers and know the Scriptures like a prester. Tim said that where you come from, there are no presters. You pray now for these Heathen men. Maybe you can pray for us.”
“In my country we all pray for ourselves,” Gurun said. “My father leads the prayers when our family prays together, but anyone can pray whenever he pleases. God hears everybody’s prayers.”
“She ain’t a Heathen, though,” Tim said. “That’s just how her people do things, not knowing any better. But their Scripture is the same as ours. Recite the Song for him, Gurun.”
Many of the islanders memorized verses as laid down in the true copies of the holy books, even if they didn’t understand the ancient language. They had the Sacred Songs exactly as King Ozias wrote them, centuries ago. Anyone who’d ever attended services at a chamber house would recognize Ozias’ Song of the Lion, as Gurun spoke it: