In Luterin Shokerandit’s mind, the sense of victorywas mingled with many other emotions. Pride like a shrill of trumpets moved in him when he reflected that he was now a man, a hero, his courage proved beyond everyone’s doubt but his own.
And there was the excitement of knowing that he now had within his clutches a beautiful and powerless woman. Yet not entirely silenced was the continual unease of his thoughts, a flow so familiar that it was part of him. The flow brought before him continually the question of his duty to his parents, the obligations and restrictions at home, the loss of his brother-still painfully unexplained-the reminder that he had lost a year in prostrating illness. Doubt, in short, which even the sense of victory would not entirely still. That was Luterin’s perceptual universe at thirteen years; he carried about with him an uncertainty which the scent, the voice, of Toress Lahl by turn soothed and aroused. Since he had no one in whom he could confide, his strategy was to suppress, to behave as if all were well.
So at first light, he threw himself gladly back into action. He had discovered that danger was a sedative.
“One last assault,” said Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka. “Then the day will be ours.” His face of anger moved among the thousand other grim faces, dry of lip, again preparing to fight.
Orders were shouted, phagors mustered. Yelk were watered. Men spat as they swung themselves again into the saddle. The plain lightened with Batalix-dawn and human suffering again took on movement. The rise of the greater luminary was a more gradual event: weakening Freyr could not climb far above the horizon.
“Forward!” In went the cavalry at walking pace, infantry behind. Bullets flew. Men staggered and fell.
The Sibornalese attack lasted a little under the hour. Pannovalan morale was sinking fast. One by one, its units fell into retreat. The Shiveninki force under Luterin Shokerandit moved off in pursuit, but was recalled; Asperamanka had no wish to see this young lieutenant acquire yet more glory. The army of the north withdrew to the northern side of the river. Its wounded were taken to Isturiacha, to a field ambulance established in some barns. Tenderly, the broken men were laid to bleed on straw.
As the opponents withdrew from the plain, the cost of battle could clearly be seen. As if in a gigantic shipwreck, pallid bodies lay strewn upon their last shore. Here and there, an overturned wagon burned, its smoke carrying thin across the soiled ground.
Figures moved among the dead. A Pannovalan artillery officer was one of them, scarcely recognisable. Sniffing at a corpse like a dog, he wrenched at its jacket until the sleeve came off. He commenced to chew at the arm. He ate in snatches, face distorted, raising his head to look about as he chewed each mouthful.
He continued to chew and stare even when a rifleman approached. The latter raised his weapon and fired at short range. The artillery officer was blown backwards, to lie motionless with arms outspread. The rifleman, with others similarly detailed, moved slowly about the death-field, shooting the devourers of corpses. These were the unfortunates who had contracted the Fat Death and, in the throes of bulimia, were driven to feast on the dead. Plague victims were reported on both sides. As the main body of the Pannovalan army made its untidy retreat, it left behind a detail of monumental masons.
The masons had no victory to celebrate. Nevertheless, their trade had to be exercised. Back in Pannoval, the defeated commanders would be bound to claim a victory. Here, at the limits of their territory, the lie had to be reinforced in stone.
Although the plain offered no quarries, the masons found a ruinous monument near at hand. They demolished it and carried its separate stones nearer to the bridge by the sullen river.
These guildsmen took pride in their craft. With practised care, they reerected the monument almost stone for stone on its new site. The master-mason carved upon the base of the monument the name of the place and the date, and, in grander lettering, the name of the old Chief Marshal.
All stood back and regarded the stonework with pride before returning to their wagon. None who executed this act of practical piety realised that he had demolished a monument commemorating a similar battle fought here eons ago.
The gaunt Sibornalese watched with satisfaction as the defeated enemy withdrew southwards. They had sustained heavy losses, and it was clear there was nothing to be gained by pressing on farther as had once been planned; their other settlements had been wiped out, as refugees in Isturiacha reported.
Those who survived the battle felt relief that the challenge was behind them. Yet there was also a sense in some quarters that the engagement had been a dishonourable thing-dishonourable and even paltry, after the months of training and preparation which had preceded it. For what had it been fought?
For ground that would now have to be conceded? For honour?
To quell such doubts, Asperamanka announced a feast to be held that evening in celebration of the Sibornalese victory. Some arang, newly arrived in Isturiacha, would be slaughtered; they and supplies captured from the enemy would provide the fare. The army rations, needed for the journey home, would not be touched.
Preparations for this celebration went forward even while the dead were being buried in nearby consecrated ground. The graves lay in a great shallow vale, open to the wide skies, where aromas of cooking wafted over the corpses.
While the settlers were busy, the army was content to rest. Their trained phagors sprawled with them. It was a day for grateful sleep. For binding of wounds. For repairs to uniforms, boots, harness. Soon they would have to be on the move again. They could not remain in Isturiacha. There was not enough food to support an idle army.
Towards the end of the day, the smells of woodsmoke and roasting meats overcame the lingering stench of the battlefield. Hymns of thanksgiving were offered up to God the Azoiaxic. The men’s voices, and the ring of sincerity in them, brought tears to the eyes of some women settlers, whose lives had been saved by these same hymn singers. Rape and captivity would have been their lot after a Pannovalan invasion.
Children who had been locked in the church of the Formidable Peace while danger threatened were now released. Their cries of delight brightened the evening. They clambered among the soldiery, chuckling at the attempts of the men to get drunk on weak Isturiachan beer.
The feast began according to the omens, as dimday snared the world. The roast arang were attacked until nothing but the stained cages of their ribs remained. It was another memorable victory.
Afterwards, three solemn elders of the settlement council approached the Archpriest-Militant and bowed to him. No hand touching took place since Sibornalese of high caste disapproved of physical contact with others.
The elders thanked Asperamanka for preserving the safety of Isturiacha, and the senior among them said formally, “Revered sire, you understand our situation here is that of the last and southernmost settlement of Sibornal. Once there were/continued other settlements farther into Campannlat, even as far as Roonsmoor. All have been overwhelmed by the denizens of the Savage Continent. Before your army will/must retire to our home continent, we beseech you on behalf of all in Isturiacha to leave a strong garrison with us, that we may not/avoidance suffer the same fate as our neighbours.”
Their hairs were grey and sparse. Their noses shone in the light of the oil lamps. They spoke in a high dialect larded with slippery tenses, past continuous, future compulsive, avoidance-subjunctive, and the Priest-Militant responded in similar terms, while his gaze evaded theirs.
“Honoured gentlemen, I doubt if you can/will/could support the extra mouths you request. Although this is the summer of the small year, and the weather is clement, yet your crops are poor, as I perceive, and your cattle appear starved.” The thundercloud was dark about Asperamanka’s brow as he spoke.
The elders regarded each other. Then all three spoke simultaneously.
“The might of Pannoval will return against us.”
“We pray/praying every day for better climates as before.”
“Without a garrison we die/will/unavoidable.”
Perhaps it was the use of the archaic fatalistic future which made Asperamanka scowl. His rectangular face seemed to narrow; he stared down at the table with pursed lips, nodding his head as if making some sly pact with himself.
It was by Asperamanka’s command that young Lieutenant Shokerandit sat next to him in a place of honour, so that some of the latter’s glory might bedeflected to his commander. Asperamanka turned his head to Shokerandit and asked, “Luterin, what reply would/dare you give these elders to their request-in high dialect or otherwise?”
Shokerandit was aware of the danger lurking in the question.
“Since the request comes not from three mouthpieces but from all the mouths in Isturiacha, sire, it is too large for me to answer. Only your experience can discover the fit reply.”
The Priest-Militant cast his gaze upwards, to the rafters and their long shadows, and scratched his chin.
“Yes, it could be said that the decision is mine, to speak for the Oligarchy. On the other hand, it could be said that God has already decided. The Azoiaxic tells me that it is no longer possible to maintain this settlement, or the ones to the north of it.”
He raised one triangular eyebrow in his rectangular face as he addressed the elders.
“The crops fail year by year despite all prayer can do. That’s a matter of common record. Once these southern settlements of ours grew vines. Now you are hard put to it to raise barley and mouldy potatoes. Isturiacha is no longer our pride but our liability. It is best that the settlement be abandoned. Everyone should leave when the army leaves, two days from now. In no other way can you escape eventual starvation or subjection to Pannoval.”
Two of the leaders had to prop up the third. Consternation broke out among all who overheard this conversation. A woman rushed to the Priest-Militant and clasped his stained boots. She cried that she had been born in Isturiacha, together with her sisters; they could not contemplate leaving their home.
Asperamanka rose to his feet and rapped on the table for attention. Silence fell.
“Let me make this matter clear to you all. Remember that my rank entitles me-no, forces me-to speak on behalf of both Church and State. We must be under no illusions. We are a practical people, so I know that you will accept what I say. Our Lord who existed before life, and round whom all life revolves, has set this generation’s steps on astoney path. So be it. We must tread it gladly because it is his will.
“This gallant army who celebrates with you tonight, these brave representatives from all our illustrious nations, must start almost immediately northwards again. If the army is not on the move, it will starve from lack of fodder. If it remains here in Isturiacha, it will starve you with it. As farmers you understand the case. These are laws of God and nature. Our first intention was to press on to conquer Pannoval; such was our charge from the Oligarch. Instead, I must start my men homewards in two days, neither more nor less.”
One of the elders asked, “Why such a sudden change of plan, Priest-Militant, when yours was the victory?”
The rectangular face managed a horizontal smile. He looked about at the greasy faces, lit by firelight, hanging on his words, while he timed his utterance with the instinct of a preacher.
“Yes, ours was the victory, thanks be to the Azoiaxic, but the future is not ours. History stands against us. The settlements to the south where we hoped we might find support and supplies are wiped out, destroyed by a savage enemy. The climate deteriorates faster than we judged-you see how Freyr scarce rises from his bed these days. My judgement is that Pannoval, that heathen hole, lies too far for victory, and near enough only for defeat. If we continued there, none of us would return here.
“The Fat Death spreads from the south. We have it among us. The most courageous warrior fears the Fat Death. Nobody goes into battle with such a companion by his side.
“So we bow to nature and return home to report our victory to the Oligarchy in Askitosh. We leave, as I have said, in fifty hours. Use that time, settlers, use it well. At the end of that period, those of you who have decided to return to Sibornal with your families will be welcome to come north with us, under the army’s protection.
“Those who decide to stay may do so-and die in Isturiacha. Sibornal will not, cannot return here. Whatever you decide, you have fifty hours to do it in, and God bless you all.”
Of the two thousand men, women, and children in the settlement, most had been born there. They knew only the harsh life of the open fields or-in the case of the more privileged men-of the hunt. They feared leaving their homes, they dreaded the journey to Sibornal across the steppes, they even misdoubted the sort of reception they might receive at the frontier.
Nevertheless, when the case was put to them by the elders at a meeting in the church, most settlers decided to leave. For longer than anyone could recall, the climate had been worsening, year by small year, with few remissions. Year by year, connections with the northern homeland had become more tenuous, and the threat from the south greater.
Tears and lamentations filled the camp. It was the end of all things. All that they had worked for was to be abandoned.
As soon as Batalix rose, slaves were sent off into the fields to gather in all the crops they could, while the households packed their worldly goods. Scuffles broke out between those who intended to leave and a smaller group who intended to stay at all costs; the latter shouted that the crops should be preserved.
Three kinds of slaves were driven out to labour in the fields. There were the phagors, dehorned, who served as something between a slave proper and a beast of burden. Then there were the human slaves. Lastly there were slaves of non-human stock, Madis, or, more rarely, Driats. Both humans and non- humans were regarded as dishonoured persons, male or female. They were the socially dead.
It counted as a sign of rank to keep slaves; the more slaves, the higher the ranking. The many Sibornalese who did not keep slaves looked with envy on those who did, and aspired to own at least a phagor. In easier times, slaves in the cities of Sibornal had often been maintained in idleness, almost as if they were pets; in the settlements, slaves and owners worked side by side. As times grew harsher, the attitudes of the owners changed. Slaves became drudges, except in rare cases. The slaves of the settlement, when they returned from the fields, were now put to building carts, and given other tasks beyond their competence.
When the Priest-Militant’s stipulated two dayswere up, bugles were sounded and everyone had to assemble outside the confines of the settlement.
The quartermasters of the Sibornalese army had set up field kitchens and baked bread for the start of the homeward trek. Rations were going to be short. After a conference, the chiefs of staff announced that the settlers heading north must shoot their slaves or set them free, in order to cut down the number of mouths to be fed. From this order, ancipitals were spared, on the grounds that they could double as beasts of burden and were able to forage for their own food.
“Mercy!” cried both slaves and masters. The phagors stood motionless.
“Kill off the phagors,” some men said, with bitterness. Others, remembering old history, replied, “They were once our masters . . .”
The settlers were now under military law. Protests were of no avail. Without their slaves, householders would be unable to transport many of their goods; still the slaves had to go. Their usefulness had expired. Over a thousand slaves were massacred in an old riverbed near the settlement. The corpses were given casual burial by phagors, while hordes of carrion birds descended, perching on nearby fences in silence, awaiting their chance. And the wind blew as before. After the wailing a terrible silence fell.
Asperamanka stood watching the ceremony. As one of the women of the settlement passed near him, weeping, he was moved by compassion and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Bless you, my daughter. Do not grieve.”
She looked up at him without anger, her face blotched by crying. “I loved my slave Yuli. Is it not human to grieve?”
Despite the edict, many slaves were spared by their owners, especially those who were sexually used. They were concealed or disguised, and assembled with the families for the journey. Luterin Shokerandit protected his own captive, Toress Lahl, giving her trousers and a fur cap to wear as a disguise. Without a word, she tucked her long chestnut hair into the confines of the cap and went to hold Luterin’s yelk by its bridle. The marching columns began to form up.
While this bustle was afoot and carts were being overloaded and arrangements were being made for the wounded, six arangherds left slyly, climbing the perimeter, and made off over the plain with their dogs. Theirs was the wild free life.
Asperamanka stood alone by his black yelk, thinking his dark thoughts. He called an orderly to fetch Lieutenant Shokerandit to him. Luterin arrived, looking, in his unease, very immature. “Have you two reliable men on reliable mounts, Lieutenant Shokerandit? Two men who would travel fast? I wish news of our victory to get to the Oligarch by the fastest means. Before he hears from other sources.”
“I could find two such men, yes. We from Kharnabhar are great riders.”
Asperamanka frowned, as if this news displeased him. He produced a leather wallet, which he then tucked under one arm.
“This message must be taken by your reliable men to the frontier town of Koriantura. It is there to be delivered to an agent of mine, and he will deliver it in person to the Oligarch. Your reliable men’s re- sponsibility ends at Koriantura, you understand? Report to me when all is ready.”
“Sire, I will.”
The wallet was pulled from under the arm and held out towards Shokerandit in a blue-gloved hand. It was sealed with the Archpriest-Militant’s seal andaddressed to the Supreme Oligarch of Sibornal, Torkerkanzlag II, in Askitosh, Capital City of Uskutoshk.
Shokerandit chose two reliable youths, well-known to him and like brothers back in Shivenink. They left their comrades and their fighting phagors and mounted two shorn yelk, with nothing more than packs of provisions and water at their backs. Within the hour they were off across the grasslands, riding northwards with the message for the dread Oligarch.
But the Oligarch of Sibornal, ruling over his vast bleak continent, had spies everywhere. Already a trusted man of his, placed close to the Arch-priest-Militant Asperamanka, had ridden off with the news of the engagement, for one particular interest of the Oligarch’s was the progress of the plague northwards.
It was the time for farewells. The trek northwards began in some disorder. Each unit started off with its carts, supply animals, phagors, and guns. Their noise filled the shallow landscape. They jostled for the course they had traversed only a few days earlier. The settlers leaving Isturiacha, many for the first time in their lives, went in greatest dis-arrary, clutching children and precious possessions which had found no place on their overloaded carts.
Tearful good-byes were called to those individuals who had made the decision to remain behind. Those exiles stood outside the perimeter, stiff and upright, hands upraised. In their bearing was a consciousness of playing the honourable role, of defying fate-a consciousness, too, of the elemental forces slowly mounting against them. From now on, only the Azoiaxic and their own competence would be their defence.
Luterin Shokerandit sat at the head of the Shivenink force, aware of how his status had changed since last he passed this way. He was now a hero. His captive, Toress Lahl, disguised in her cap and breeches, was forced to ride behind him on his yelk, clinging to his belt. The death of her husband still burned inside her, so that she spoke no word.
In her pain, Toress Lahl showed no fear of the yelk, a creature of mild habits but ferocious aspect. Its horns curled about its shaggy head. Its eyes, shielded by furry lids, gave the beast a watchful look. The curl of its heavy underlip suggested that it despised all that it saw of human history.
The settlement fell away behind the procession. A succession of wearyingly similar valleys began to unfold ahead. The wind blew. The grass rustled.
Silence closed over the procession. But one of the elders who had elected to leave Isturiacha was a garrulous old man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice; he urged his mount over until he was riding beside Shokerandit and his lieutenants, and tried to pass the time of day with him. Shokerandit had little to say. His mind was on the immediate future and the long journey back to his father’s house.
“I suppose it really was the Supreme Oligarch who ordered Isturiacha to be closed,” he said.
No response. He tried again. “They say the Oligarch is a great despot, and that his hand is harsh over all Sibornal.”
“Winter will be harsher,” said one of the lieutenants, laughing. After another mile, the elder said confidentially, “I fancy you young men do not see eye-to-eye with Asperamanka ... I fancy that in his position you would have ordered a garrison to stay and defend us.” “The decision was not mine to make,” Shokerandit said. The elder smiled and nodded, revealing his few remaining teeth. “Ah, but I saw the expression on your face when he announced his ruling, and I thought to myself-in fact, I said it to the others-‘Now there’s a young man with a measure of mercy in him ... a saint,’ I said . . .” “Go away, old man. Save your breath for the ride.” “But to break up a fine settlement just like that. In the old days, we used to send our food surplus back to Uskutoshk. Then to break it up ... You’d think the Oligarch would be grateful. We’re all Sibornal-ese, are wenot? You can’t argue against that, can you?”
When Shokerandit had been given, and failed to take, his chance to argue against it, the elder wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “Do you think I was wise to leave, young sir? It was my home, after all. Perhaps we should all have stayed. Perhaps another of the Oligarch’s armies-one with more generous impulses towards its compatriots-will be coming this way again in a year or two . . . Well, this is a bitter day for us, that’s all I will say.”
He was turning his steed’s head and about to ride off when Shokerandit reached out suddenly and grasped the collar of his coat, almost unseating the old man.
“You must know nothing of the world if you can’t see the truth of t he situation more clearly than that! What I think of the Priest-Militant is immaterial. He gave the only judgement possible. Work it out for yourself instead of airing your grievances. You see what a multitude we are? By dimday, we shall have spread out until we stretch from one horizon to the other. Feet, steeds, mouths to be fed ... the weather becoming more bleak . . . Work it out for yourself, old man.”
He gestured over the moving multitude, gestured towards all the grey, black, and russet backs of the soldiers, each back burdened with a pack containing a three-day ration of hardtack, plus unspent ammunition, each back turned towards the south and the pallid sun. The multitude spread wider and wider, to allow the creaking carts more room. It moved with a dull entombed sound which the low hills returned.
Among the men riding went others on foot, often clinging to a saddlestrap. Some carts were piled with equipment, others with wounded, who suffered at ever)’ jog of the axle. Loaded phagors trudged by their masters, backs bent, eyes to the ground; the ancipital fighting corps marched slightly apart with their strange jointless stride.
The halt that night was a confused affair. Not all the shouted orders and bugle calls could discipline it. Units settled where they would, pitching tents or not as the case was, to the inconvenience of other units seeking a better site. Animals had to be fed and watered. The watering entailed sending water carts off into the gloom to one side or the other, to seek out streams in the hills. The mutter of men’s voices, the restless movement of animals, were never absent during the brief night.
The clouds parted. It grew colder.
The Shivenink contingent formed a close group. Being young, most of them clustered about Luterin Shokerandit, preparing to drink the night away. Their canteens contained the spirit they called yadahl, fermented from seaweed, ruby red in colour. In yadahl they celebrated their recent victory, Luterin’s heroism, and the excitement of being on the plains rather than in the familiar mountains of home-and the pleasure of simply being alive, and anything else that entered their heads. Soon they were singing, despite outcries from groups of would-be sleepers.
But the yadahl did not inspire Luterin Shokerandit to sing. He moved apart from his companions from Kharnabhar, his thoughts dwelling on his fair captive. Though she had been married, he doubted if she was as old as he, despite her assured manner; the women of the Savage Continent married young.
He longed to possess her. And yet his parents had committed him to marry in Kharnabhar. Why should that make a difference to what he did here, in the wilds of Chalce? His friends would laugh at his scruples.
His memories returned to the night before the Sibornalese army had left the frontier town of Koriantura to head south. His contingent had been given leave. His friend Umat had tried to persuade him to come on the rampage, but no, he had hung back like a fool.
While the rest of them had gone drinking and whoring, Luterin had walked the cobbled streets alone. He had entered a deuteroscopist’s shop,set in a square next to an old theatre.
The deuteroscopist had shown him many curious things, including a small object like a bracelet, said to come from another world, and a tapeworm in a jar one hundred inches long, which the deuteroscopist had charmed from the entrails of a lady of quality (by using a small silver flute which he was prepared to sell at a price).
“Have I the courage for battle?” Luterin had asked the diviner. Whereupon the old man had become busy on Luterin’s skull with calipers and other measuring devices before saying finally, “You are either a saint or a sinner, young master.”
“That was not my question. My question was, am I hero or coward?” “It’s the same question. It needs courage to be a saint.” “And none to be a sinner?” He thought of how he had not dared to join his friends.
Much nodding of the hairy old head. “That needs courage too. Everything needs courage. Even that tapeworm needed courage. Would you care to pass your life imprisoned in someone’s entrails? Even the entrails of a beautiful lady? If I told you that such a fate lay in your future, would you be happy?”
Impatient with his procrastination, Luterin said, “Are you going to give me an answer to my question?”
“You will answer it yourself very soon. All I will say is that you will display great courage . . .” “But?”
A smile that pleaded forgiveness. “Because of your nature, young man. You will find yourself both sinner and saint. You will be a hero, but I think I see that you will behave like a scoundrel.”
He had recalled that conversation-and the tape worm-all the way down to Isturiacha. Now he had become a hero, could he dare to be a scoundrel?
As he sat there, drinking but not singing, Umat Esikananzi grabbed him by the boot and pulled him forcibly nearer the fire.
“Don’t be glum, old lad. We’re still alive, we’veplayed the hero-you especially-and soon we’ll be back home.” Umat had a big puddingy face rather like his father’s, but it beamed now. “The world’s a hor- ribly empty place; that’s why we’re singing-to fillit up with noise. But you’ve got other things on your mind.”
“Umat, your voice is the most melodious I ever heard, including a vulture’s, but I’m going to sleep.”
Umat waved an admonitory finger. “Ah, I thought as much. That fair captive of yours! Give her hell from me. And I promise not to tell Insil.”
He kicked Umat on the shin, “How Insil had the rotten luck to get a brother like you I’ll never know.”
Taking another swig of yadahl, Umat said cheerfully, “She’s a girl, is Insil. Come to think of it, she might be grateful to me if I took you by the scruff of your neck and made you get a bit of practice in.” The whole group roared with laughter.
Shokerandit staggered to his feet and bid them good night. With an effort, he made for his own pitch, close by a cart. Despite the stars overhead, it seemed very dark. There was no aurora in these latitudes as there so often was in Kharnabhar.
Clutching his canteen, he half fell against the bulk of his yelk, which was staked to the ground by the tether burnt through its left ear. He went down on his knees and crawled to where the woman was.
Toress Lahl lay curled up small, hands grasping her knees. She stared up at him without speaking. Her face was pale in the obscurity. Her eyes reflected minutely the litter of stars in the sky above them. He caught hold of her upper arm and thrust the canteen at her. “Drink some yadahl.”
Mutely she shook her head, a small decisive movement. He clouted her over the side of the head and thrust the leather bottle in her face. “Drink this, you bitch, I said. It’ll put heart in you.”
Again the shake of head, but he took her arm and twisted it till she cried out. Then she grasped the canteen and took a swallow of the fiery liquor.
“It’s good for you. Drink more.”
She coughed and spluttered over it, so that her spittle lighted on his cheek. Shokerandit kissed her forcibly on the lips.
“Have mercy, I beg you. You are not a barbarian.” She spoke Sibish well enough, but with a heavy accent, not unpleasant to his ear.
“You are my prisoner, woman. No fine airs from you. Whoever you were, you are mine now, part of my victory. Even the Archpriest would do with you as I intend, were he in my boots . . .” He gulped at the liquid himself, heaved a sigh, slumped heavily beside her.
She lay tense; then, sensing his inertia, spoke. When not crying out, Toress Lahl had a voice with a low liquid quality, as if there were a small brook at the back of her throat. She said, “That elder who came to you this afternoon. He saw himself going into slavery, as I see myself. What did you mean when you said to him that your Archpriest gave the only judgement possible?” Shokerandit lay silent, struggling with his drunken self, struggling with the question, struggling with his impulse to strike the girl for so blatantly trying to turn the channel of his desires. In that silence, up from his consciousness rose an awareness darker than his wish to violate her, the awareness of an immutable fate. He threw down more liquor and the awareness rose closer.
He rolled over, the better to force his words on her.
“Judgement, you say, woman? Judgement is delivered by the Azoiaxic, or else by the Oligarch-not by some biwacking holy man who would see his own troops bleed to serve his ends.” He pointed to his friends carousing by the camp fire. “See those buffoons there? Like me, they come from Shivenink, a good part of the round globe away. It’s two hundred miles just to the frontiers of Uskutoshk. Lumbered with all our equipment, with the necessity for foraging for food, we cannot cover more than ten miles a day. How do you think we feed our stomachs in this season, madam?”
He shook her till her teeth rattled and she clung to him, saying in terror, “You feed, don’t you? I see your wagons carry supplies and your animals can graze, can’t they?”
He laughed. “Oh, we just feed, do we? On what, exactly? How many people do you think we have spread across the face of this land? The answer is something like ten thousand humans and ahumans, together with seven thousand yelk and whatever, including cavalry mounts. Each of those men needs two pounds of bread a day, with an extra one pound of other provisions, including a ration of yadahl. That adds up to thirteen and a half tons every day.
“You can starve men. Our stomachs are hollow. But you must feed animals or they sicken. A yelk needs twenty pounds of fodder every day; which for seven thousand head comes to sixty-two odd tons a day. That makes some seventy-five tons to be carried or procured, but we can only transport nine tons . .
He lay silent, as if trying to convert the whole prospect in his mind into figures.
“How do we make up the shortfall? We have to make it up on the move. We can requisition it from villages on our route-only there are n’t any villages in Chalce. We have to live off the land. The bread problem alone . . . You need twenty-four ounces of flour to bake a two-pound loaf. That means six and a half tons of flour to be found every day.
“But that’s nothing to what the animals eat. Youneed an acre of green fodder to feed fifty yelk and hoxneys-“
Toress Lahl began to weep. Shokerandit propped himself on an elbow and gazed across the encampment as he spoke. Little sparks glowed in the dark here and there over a wide area, constantly obscured as bodies moved unseen between him and them. Some men sang; others abased themselves and communicated with the dead.
“Suppose we take twenty days to reach Koriantura at the frontier, then our mounts will need to consume two thousand eight hundred acres of fodder. Your dead husband must have had to do similar sums, didn’t he?
“Every day an army marches, it spends more time in quest of food than it does in moving forward. We have to mill our own grain-and there’s precious little of anything but wild grasses and shoatapraxi in these regions. We have to make expeditions to fell trees and gather wood for the bakeries. We have to set up field bakeries. We have to graze and water the yelk. . . . Perhaps you begin to see why Isturiacha had to be left? History is against it.”
“Well, I just don’t care,” she said. “Am I an animalthat you tell me how much these animals eat? You can all starve, the lot of you, for all I care. You got drunk on killing and now you’re drunk on yadahl.”
In a low voice, he said, “They didn’t think I wouldbe any good in battle, so at Koriantura I was put in charge of animal fodder. There’s an insult for a man whose father is Keeper of the Wheel! I had to learn those figures, woman, but I saw the sense in them. I grasped their meaning. Year by year, the growing season is getting shorter-just a day at either end.
This summer is a disappointment to farmers. The Isthmus of Chalce is famine-stricken. You’ll see. Allthis Asperamanka knows. Whatever you think of him, he’s no fool. An expedition such as this, which set out with over eleven thousand men, cannot be launched ever again.”
“So my unfortunate continent is safe at last from your hateful Sibish interference.”
He laughed. “Peace at a price. An army marching through the land is like a plague of locusts-and the locusts die when there’s no food in their path. That settlement will soon be entirely cut off. It’s doomed.
“The world is becoming more hostile, woman. And we waste what resources we have. . . .”
Luterin lay against her rigid body, burying his face in his arms. But before sleep and drink overpowered him, he heaved himself up again to ask how old she was. She refused to say. He struck her hard across the face. She sobbed and admitted to thirteen plus one tenner. She was his junior by two tenners.
“Young to be a widow,” he said with relish. “And-don’t think you’ll get off lightly tomorrow night. I’m not the animal fodder officer anymore. No talk tomorrow night, woman.”
Toress Lahl made no reply. She remained awake, unstirring, gazing miserably up at the stars overhead. Clouds veiled the sky as Batalix-dawn drew near. Groans of the dying reached her ears. There were twelve more deaths from the plague during the night.
But in the morning those who survived rose as usual, stretched their limbs, and were blithe, joking with friends of this and that as they queued for their rations at the bread wagons. A two-pound loaf each, she remembered bitterly.
There was no soldier on that long trail homeward who would admit to enjoying himself. Yet it was probable that everyone took some pleasure in the routine of making and breaking camp, in the camara- derie, in the feeling that progress was being made, and in the chance of being in a different place each day. There was simple pleasure in leaving behind the ashes of an old fire and pleasure in building a new one, in watching the young flames take hold of twigs and grass.
Such activities, with the enjoyments they generated, were as old as mankind itself. Indeed, some activities were older, for human consciousness had flickered upward-like young flames taking hold- amid the challenges of mankind’s first long peregrination eastwards from Hespagorat, when forsaking the protection of the ancipital race and the status of domesticated animal.
The wind might blow chill from the north, from the Circumpolar Regions of Sibornal, yet to the soldiers returning home the air tasted good in their lungs, the ground felt good beneath their feet.
The officers were less lighthearted than their men. For the general soldiery, it was enough to have survived the battle and to be returning home to whatever welcome awaited them. For those who thought more deeply, the matter was more complex. There was the question of the increasingly severe regime within the frontiers of Sibornal. There was also the question of their success.
Although the officers, from Asperamanka downwards, talked repeatedly of victory, nevertheless, under that terrible enantiodromia which gripped the world, under that inevitable and incessant turning of all things into their opposites, the victor}’ came to f eel more and more like a defeat-a defeat from which they were retreating with little to show but scars, a list of the dead, and extra mouths to feed.
And always, to heighten this oppressive sense of failure, the Fat Death was among them, keeping pace easily with the fastest troops.
In the spring of the Great Year was the bone fever, cutting down human populations, pruning the survivors to mere skeletons. In the autumn of the Year was the Fat Death, again cutting down human populations, this time melding them into new, more compact shape. So much and more was well enough understood, and accepted with fatalism. But fear still sprang up at the very word “plague.” And at such times, everyone mistrusted his neighbour.
On the fourth day, the forward units came across one of the two messengers whom Shokerandit had sent ahead. His body lay face down in a gully. The torso had been gnawed as if by a wild animal.
The soldiers preserved a wide circle about the corpse, but seemed unable to stop looking at it. When Asperamanka was summoned, he too looked long at the dreadful sight. Then he said to Shokerandit, “That silent presence travels with us. There is no doubt that the terrible scourge is carried by the phagors, and is the Azoiaxic’s punishment upon us for associating with them. The only way to make restitution is to slay all ancipitals who are on the march with us.”“Haven’t we had slaughter enough, Archpriest? Could we not just drive the ancipitals away into the wilds?”
“And let them breed and grow strong against us? My young hero, leave me to deal with what is my business.” His narrow face wrinkled into severe lines, and he said, “It is more necessary than ever to get word swiftly to the Oligarch. We must be met and given assistance as soon as possible. I charge you now, personally, to go with a trusted companion and bear my message to Koriantura for onward transmission to the Oligarch. You will do this?”
Luterin cast his gaze on the ground, as he had often done in his father’s presence. He was accustomed to obeying orders.
“I can be in the saddle within an hour, sir.”
The wrath that seemed always to lurk under Asperamanka’s brow, lending heat to his eyes, came into play as he regarded his subordinate.
“Reflect that I may be saving your life by charging you with this commission, Lieutenant Ensign Shokerandit. On the other hand, you may ride and ride, only to discover that the silent presence awaits in Koriantura.”
With a gloved finger, he made the Sign of the Wheel on his forehead and turned away.