Enar

The euphoria of knowing I was in a new land and no longer under threat kept me going all day until I finally bivouacked outside a largish town.  I had passed through hamlets and villages all day and was welcome there as in the villages of Nul.  It was the Nula towns that had turned strange and I did not want those of Enar to follow suite.

The people were all the same, and even spoke much the same language. It sounded like, perhaps, the difference between Lovalev and Surian.  I ate sparingly of provisions I had acquired in the villages on the way,  (Even the coinage was acceptable here as well, a most useful fact) and settled down to a full night's sleep.

I woke early to pass through the town, which had a sign at it's edge announcing that the place was called Gand.  As with most of Nul, there were no fortifications or gates to this town, or any of the villages. A sure sign of the easy relations between the two lands and a factor easing my passing as there were no gates to have opened or walls to circumvent.

 

In no time at all or so it seemed, I was back in open country again, well before most of the inhabitants were up and about their business.  It was not so of course in the rural districts, as with everywhere country people have to be up early to see to the domestic animals, and even at that time of day there were waves and friendly greetings.  This was encouragement enough for me to stop and breakfast at an Inn in a small village.

The earliness of the day meant I had to wait for my meat and eggs with fresh bread, but it was well worth it.  Thus, replete and replenished I carried on only to make a halt again late in the afternoon.  Once more I camped in the open, but I had to go some way from the road to find a patch of scrub and trees large enough to settle in.  There were woods, the occasional copse and more frequently a small stand of trees where fields joined.  That does not mean there was a lack of trees.  More that they were mostly in lines or singles, demarking roads, paths or fields, so heavily was this land populated and worked.

 

I had hardly settled in with a little fire going, before a farm worker came by, saw me and asked what I was doing.  So l explained that I was just travelling and was sett1ing in for the night.

"POOF!"  He exclaimed.  (I have never heard an exclamation like that before!) "Come and sleep in my barn.  At least it will be out of the rain." 

I started to make a reply, but was cut off by his continuing. "I'd offer you room in the house, but I haven't any spare.  Though you're welcome to wash there and eat with us."

I hesitated and he decided for me.

"Come along! Don't shilly shally!"

How does oneshilly shallyI asked myself.

"Come on boy! I won't have anyone sleeping rough on my land!"

Well, I had never heard an outburst like this in my entire life.  Accompanied by the insistent joviality of its delivery I could hardly refuse, and so I packed my kit, doused the fire and went with the fellow.

 

As we walked he fired a stream of questions at me. Where I was from, where I was going, what I was to do there, what was my name and why was a young fellow like me gallivanting around when there were females to chase for.  Especially now the breeding season was underway.  Gently I explained that I was a Valever neut so my size and visage decried my actual years, and the breeding season was also therefore of no special significance to me as an individual.

He was visibly taken aback, saying. "Neuts don't go travelling! Not here anyway.  They stay with their families as they should. Was I then a renegade?"

"Not so", Said I, explaining, "I was here on my High Chiefs' instructions. For him to have sent a male, particularly at this time of year would have been foolhardy, as the 'distractions' were just too much for a male to concentrate on the task in hand."

Before he could take up on this, I had a question for him, asking whether the land was truly his as he had indicated

The reply, hesitantly was. "Sort of, yes." 

To my enquiry of, “what does sort ofmean?”  He explained that in reality the title of the land was held by his wife

I interrupted here to ask "What was a wife?"

"Ahh." He said.  "Males and females can elect to be mates for a long as they live inthisland."  He knew that wasn't the norm elsewhere, and did not used to be long ago even in Enar when the females selected their mate every breeding season, but even then their selection was not infrequently the same male. So this arrangement was to the benefit of both.  The females gain a stable mate who stays and works. This is gaining in importance as fewer and fewer neuts are born, and the male gains by not having to prove themselves every season.  Which, he explained, was an outmoded practice anyway as the skills most useful to get on were quite unlike those needed in competitions of fighting.

"What is more?"  He confided. "The females aren't really into all that martial stuff."

 

"But then," I asked, "How did they choose in the first place?"

His reply was that he didn't know.  But then no one did, or ever really had, for by rights in the old days the champion of the games should have serviced every single female.  But that wasn't so, being champion never guaranteed anything in that line as the females do all the choosing and as often as not they would choose someone who had lost a bout but fought well.

"Anyway, it was always the mature males who had been picked. The young bucks and the elders rarely got a look in, while the matures would service maybe twenty females. Now, with labour short a male must have an incentive to stand his ground, and knowing you could be put out on your ear next season for a better prospect isn't one.  A share in the control of the land is just such an incentive."

Shaking my head at the strangeness and irony of this I uttered to myself (in Surian) "By the Throne" and added in Nul/Enaran "These are amazing revelations. They have set my head swimming."

"My word!" He exclaimed.  "I knew you were not local by your accent, but you spoke then in a different tongue.  What did it mean?"

 

So I explained how the mountain throne stands at the top of the world and only the Champion of Valev may sit on it, to be crowned at game's end.  Of how, from the capital of Vasny in Lovalev it takes six days to reach it, and from the seat it is said that even the furthest reaches of Sur can be seen.  Yet not even the King of Sur himself had sat there, much though he would like to, for legend has it that once someone has sat there and surveyed the world he is invincible forever.  Even though the Surian King feels his armies are strong now, that extra reassurance would do much credit to his cause.

For most of the time that this conversation was taking place we were seated in the barn as it had not been a long walk from my camp ground.  At that point a young female came in saying, "Papa! So here you are! We have been looking all over for you. Our meal is ready, will you come?" 

The farmer introduced me to one of his daughters, telling me that there were three others, all of whom were a little more polite and would have said hello to a stranger before telling their father off in front of him.

 

I was about to correct him on my gender, but didn't. Then he introduced me and once more invited me to eat with his family.  Leaving my kit in the barn I followed them into the house.  All the buildings here, a barn for grain, a stock house for wintering animals and the house itself were in the familiar hex-form, the house being a series of joined hex's.  All in all, a prestigious assemblage for anyone let alone a male acting as matriarch.

At the table I was to meet his wife, four daughters and three sons. No neuts.

"Are they all your children?" I asked him, and he replied 

"Yes." 

"But no neuts?"  I asked.

The wife replied that there had been two but they had both died when babies as had another son and a daughter.  

I could not restrain from asking if this situation were normal. To which the wife looked questioningly at her husband, and when he explained that I was fromvery faraway she replied that it was very much so as far as she was aware, but asked me if would not be where I came from.

Faced with their honesty and the bluntness of the question, coupled with the remoteness from home, I told them.  The truth. But swore them to tell no one. 

I told them about the population disparity, I told them about the grain harvest failures, I told them why I had been chosen to go, and then of the Surian pressures For Valev support in the war, of why Valev could not afford to give in to those pressures. Of how it had nearly killed me and how I would look unto the ends of the world for a solution.

 

I told them my tale and it took half the night to do it, but not one of them left the table. All sat round listening intently, their faces displaying every emotion as the story unfolded.  From concern for the fate of the Valev people, approval of the wiseness of the High Chief's distaste for the Surian demands.  Annoyance at the Latiian raiding and anger at my Surian conscription. Revulsion at the carnage of battle, wide-eyed fear at the description of the size and ferocity of the Latiian.  Horror at defeat and pursuit and exaltation at escape. Suspicion and scorn at Nulan machinations and relief at the tales end...  So far.

I had been plied with ale to refresh my mouth at the talking, which I had done by far the most of. To which end I had become very, very sleepy, and bade them goodnight, returning to the barn and my trusty pack.

 

Sleeping soundly, I was awoken by the daughter I had met first gently shaking me and presenting a mug of hot broth to help me awake.  Having wallowed in the luxury of broth in bed I got up, washed thoroughly and joined the family for breakfast, a hearty meal of porridge and bread.

At this meal one of the sons tentatively implied an element of doubt as to my tale.  I had drunk an amount of ale after all, and everyone knew this made people embellish their exploits somewhat.

The farmer immediately cut the son short, exclaiming that it was rude to question my story, as I was a guest.

"No." I replied. "It is fair to not take everything one hears as the truth, and to pass your own judgement on it by what you know to be real. It was not my place to comment on the manners of speaking so at this time, but I could not," I said, "prove a word of what I had told. But take me as a start." I continued.  "I am not Enaran, nor Nulan.  That much is obvious.  So where do I come from?   Why should I lie about that? And where have I been?"  As evidence I could show them my sleeping pack from Hivalev, a gold coin from Vasny, my Surian warcoat complete with blood stains and a Latiian stabbing tool.  Coins from Nul and Nulan grain samples.

 

I showed them these things and there were no more doubts. But the son expressed a wish that he could see me shoot.  I laughed out loud at this and agreed if he would pick a target and tell me why if he believed everything else, I still had to show him this.

His reply was that he did not doubt it, but this might be the only time he would get to see such a thing and the idea so impressed him that if it were as good as I said he would make his own bow and try it for himself.

I asked why in such a peaceable land there should be a need for such a skill. 

His answer was that the technique could be useful for subduing vermin. 

 

I nodded, not entirely convinced and readied my bow and arrows.  His target was a fence post about thirty paces away, an easy one so close and still.  But I sucked through my teeth, shook my head and made a play of having to warm up and get my eye in.  Then I nocked, drew and shot.

I used a long pull on a new string, (I would never have dared to do it on the gartak gut) as the arrow would break on impact and be wasted anyway, so I wanted to gain maximum penetration.  TheBANG !!as the arrow shattered made them all jump. The whole family had turned out to watch and their faces paled as their imaginations considered the effect upon flesh.

"That happens when you hit armour straight on with un-tipped arrows as well."  I commented.  "But these are all right normally and anyway the joint on the tips can make the arrows difficult to get out."

The son was almost afraid to ask, but I encouraged him with his question. "Can you hit smaller things?  ..And further away?"

I assured him, and told of the small animals I had killed to eat.  Explaining fairly that I had missed the first shot, and why. 

"What if I..?"  He burst out. 

"No!" Interjected the father.  "This is enough!  If the stranger says he can hit something then he can hit it. That is evident. He did not come here to exhibit martial skill but to solve a riddle.  We cannot help in this search."  He went on, "And I doubt that anyone, even in Beda can.  But it is possible that in the great university at Dema an answer may be found.

"In the mean time though, I humble though I am, have some advice."

 

I thanked him for his sincerity and wiseness.  Begged to differ on the matter of his being merely humble and waited for the advice. 

"There is a custom in these parts."  He said. "To burn the crop stubble every six years.  This serves to cleanse the ground and was started to clear a blight such as you have seen.  It might pay you to take up the practice in Hivalev." 

Here was a true answer!  Perhaps not a complete solution, but something!

I danced a little Jig with glee, shook the farmers hand, kissed his daughters and his wife! Slapped the backs of his sons and vowed undying servitude to him. But after I had taken the news back.

Very politely he declined my offer, saying that I had more to learn yet, and he could not detain me in my quest. 

He was right of course. But I knew I had to write a letter in this case. The question was put as to how it could get to its destination without being intercepted by the wrong eyes.

"I shall take it."  Said the doubting son.  "That way I shall ensure it gets through and I shall see some of the wonders of which you spoke. Maybe someone will pay me back and teach me to shoot a bow." 

Both the farmer and his wife were set against this but gave in, realising the son's mind was made up. There remained question of writing the letter however as there were no pens or paper at the farm.  This was resolved by the decision that the son should accompany me to Beda and then return via the farm on his way to VaIev.

 

The rest of that day was spent in me telling him everything I could think of, which would be of help.  I could not discourage him from the task, and so for him to succeed I must give him knowledge to avoid the pitfalls.  I would see how he fared as a traveller on the way to Beda and I could adjust my estimates accordingly.  With this in mind I told him in stages how long I thought it would take to get from place to place.

 

A total of forty days in all.  That is with no stop overs, rests or hold ups. To me, counted like that it did not seem that far at all.  I had thought myself to be at the other end of the world.  To the son looking out at the journey as someone who has never been further that a day or two from home the distance was immense.

It was then that I saw it dawn on him just what he had taken on.  That said, he would not back out. I tried one final time with the ultimate pressure. 

"What about his futures in the breeding season?"

His reply was simply that it was different now.  He already knew he would not breed this season and this journey would make him all the more eligible for the next.  Perhaps then the female he wanted would be ready for him and then choose him as a life partner.

So there was a definite second motive for this offer of his.  He confided that he was besotted with the one female and would take no other. She was not ready this season so he would wait.  No one else knew of this decision and he asked me not to tell on him, and so of course I would not.

 

All these things were new and strange to me, but then I accepted that these were different people in different lands.  Thinking on this I decided to try and explain a little further how things were in Nul and Sur in order that he be not too taken aback there, and I was pleasantly surprised at the reaction.  Not of revulsion or scorn, but of comprehension, interest and the understanding that in different places the rules of life are changed according to circumstance. I really began to like this boy. It seemed to me that he had the head of a neut on the body of a male, and unlike most males the body did not rule.

Later on I told the farmer of this, and that in my opinion his son was destined for high office. The farmer laughed, saying. "That might be the case where you come from but not here.  Here you had to be from one of the big families before you could stand for election to the Committee of Flens or on to the Electorate of Beleg."

 

I would have asked why, but I was a little wearied by it all, and political reform in foreign countries was not my forte.  There were after all enough anomalies and flaws in the social order at home.

The farmer and his family would not hear of my departing that day, especially when they knew how far I had been already.  And so I spent another night in their barn, having been provided for most amply and entertained until my mouth and throat were dry.

The barn had a cosy feel to it, and looking closer revealed itself to be converted neut quarters. The conversion must have been done some time ago however, for the telltale little scratchings and marks were all quite ancient.  Despite being the only one in it, the knowledge that this place had once been home to my kind gave it an occupied warm impression as if the spirit of its former inhabitants were welcoming me.  Perhaps that is just silliness on my part but I was the only one that would benefit from the imaginings and so it did no harm.

 

I slept as soundly that night as I had the previous one and was woken in a like manner. After another hearty breakfast I did not feel much like moving on, but resolved to as I might otherwise never do so.  Accordingly, not much later the son, called Harnen, and I made our farewells and I my thanks for unsurpassable hospitality.  Trudging down the pathways it did not take me long to become re‑accustomed to walking.

My pace was restricted by Harnen, for although at first he strode off, his tall frame carrying him ahead, he quite quickly slowed up and within two subspans I was doing the leading.

We had overnighted in a small hospice and Harnen had taken the opportunity to wash and dress his feet.  I made no fun of it for I remembered my first days on the road and how my feet had suffered in new boots.  At least he did not have those.  But what we both had were wet boots, for in the early afternoon it had rained heavily and turned the paths to mud.

This was the first heavy rain I had been in since spring for although there had been rain during the summer it had so far only consisted of light showers.  Even now, everything had been so dry from the long summer the effect was to turn the topsoil into a thin sticky paste rather than the glutinous mud of winter.  As it was the skies cleared again and it was only the onset of night that prevented the ground drying out.   Our boots however dried nicely beside the hostel's fireplace.

Perhaps a little too well, for they were hard when put on in the morning and it was plain that the first few long paces, (which incidentally are called great paces in Einul) would be tender going, particularly on Harnen's part.

 

The curious thing was that as Harnen's walking eased, mine grew more difficult.  For the wetting had caused damage to the stitching in my well-worn footwear, and as we progressed it slowly but surely began to come apart. Once again fortune favoured me, for my boots held out to Beda and Harnen assured me that Beda had an enviable reputation for the quality of its cobblers.

That was not all the city had a name for. From quite a way off, rising above the town could be seen the two towers of the bridge which spanned the confluence of two mighty rivers. Easily twice as high as the walls of Pom, the open construction of crossbars, braces and supports carried an enormous rope from one bank to the other.  Suspended from the rope was a roadway wide and strong enough for a continuous stream of laden porters to pass with ease in both directions across it.

From a distance it was an immense structure.  As we drew even closer it took on unbelievable proportions.  I am afraid that I was mesmerised by the sight and just stood gawking at it when we came up close.

 

Harnen, to whom the appearance had quickly lost its novelty, dragged me from my reverie urging that we should find a meal and lodgings.   At my insistence as we had first seen and then approached the bridge, Harnen explained how it had come to be built some thirty six or so summers ago. How before that it had been a long time in planning and construction but now, with the advent of pulled carts and mail carriages it was not really big enough.  And so the powers that be were thinking either of enlarging it or building another.  All this was common knowledge throughout the province and Harnen thought it a scandal.

Our lodgings were near the bridge and I was able to look out on it as dusk and then darkness fell. We had eaten well in a local tavern and then retired to bed. But I could not sleep.   I was bemused by the fact that the traffic across the bridge never stopped.  Even in the dark a procession of lamps flickered and bobbed their way over the elevated causeway.

 

On the following morning we both set out at first to find a cobbler. There were many, and we could have purchased shoes there and then or had our present ones repaired.  I decided that in view of the journeying ahead of both of us that I should pay (out of the coinage secreted in my belt ) for properly made and fitted boots of the best quality for both Harnen and myself.

This would be the second of the Iktna High Chief's coins that I used, my own funds having run out in Nul.  I had learned a lesson there however and first found a money-changer to break down this coin.  As with the Nula, this banker looked at first suspicious at the strangeness of the tender, but quickly appreciated its value.

Seeing the exchanged value of it, Harnen was brought to remark on my wealth, at which I replied that was the last of it.  He, nor any other, had seen where it had come from and was therefore disposed to believe that it had been in my purse all along. Judging from the admiring and envious looks that all who saw it gave the golden coin I was glad that there were no others in my purse and that the presence of the remaining thirty-four was unsuspected.

At any rate, the contents of my purse paid handsomely for our boots, which would take two days to make, repairs to make my old ones last that long, lodging for five days and writing equipment.  There was sufficient remaining to eat well, entertain a little and even have some left over for future use.

 

It took most of two days but I wrote a letter of introduction for Harnen and a letter of explanation of my activities and findings.  I could not detail the exit from Nul, just in case the letters were intercepted and their contents jeopardise Harnen's safety.

In truth, the letters did not say much, for Harnen himself would carry the story verbally. They were written in case he was turned back or befell some misfortune.

I was interrupted in its compilation by the cessation of traffic across the bridge.  There was no fuss to it, but the lack of activity caught my eye and attention.  The reason for it was soon evidenced.  One of the mail carriages sped away across the structure, shaking it with the speed of its passage.   There would not have been room for the carriage to pass safely let alone at speed with others on the bridge and so it had been cleared for the mail.

I did not neglect to mention this in the letter.   Although, should a similar affair be started in Valev or Sur I had no idea what might be employed to propel the contraptions.  By far the easiest and possibly the best option would be to obtain some of the animals used in the Einul mail services.

 

I had completed the letters and entrusted them now to Harnen's keeping for his journey to Valev. The task had taken me to the latter part of the day and with this done there was in fact no further requirement for Harnen to delay in his departure.

He had spent his time in enquiring to the offices of authority, who were well aware of their populations changes but completely unconcerned by them.  There would be no research in Enar as to the cause, nor steps taken to rectify it for they did not see it as a problem. In fact it was viewed as quite the reverse.  Those in authority, being male, perceived the increase in male numbers at the expense of neuts as a positive gain.  How, I cannot imagine, but there it is.

There was nothing to be solicited further from Beda.  

 

Nevertheless it would have been silly to part on our separate ways so late in the day, especially as our lodgings were paid for that night and another yet.  What is more, we had not collected our boots.  Although this could have been done then and there, we opted to collect the boots in the morning and wear them for a day just walking around Beda so as to accustom our feet to the new leather.  This would also give us the opportunity to have minor irritations repaired should there be any, before we started our respective journeys.

This also would give me the chance to observe and apply the population status theory that had been a good guide up until now.  My day end calculations concluded that Harnen's family was possibly a little exceptional and their assessments of population breakdown in error.  There were neuts, a little over one in four people were neut but with a tendency toward the older side. This when it is taken into consideration the relative longevity of neuts and the knowledge that in Valev two out of every three people were neuts does indicate a major difference in the Enar peoples and far more pronounced even than in Nul.  What is more, even to arrive at this result I had to watch more carefully, and alter some criteria in the counting to account for the differing roles and appearances of the inhabitants of this proximity.

 

Over our evening meal on our final night, I informed Harnen of my findings that he may advise my High Chief accordingly.

I did not write it down due to the lack of time and the fear that it may, if read wrongly be interpreted as the sort of information a spy would have.  I jokingly said to Harnen that perhaps some of his bloodline would profit Valev and that he should stay there and find a mate or two. At this I was curtly reminded of where his passions lay. I quickly apologised, reminding myself that although thinking of home I should not forget that I was in a strange land. Nor should I lose track of continuities, for though I was faced with new ideas and things almost everyday and my being a neut frees me from the enslavement of sexual proclivities, I should be mindful of the obsessive drive and passion it engenders in males and females everywhere.  The incident was swiftly put aside and we went off to bed down as friends again.

 

The new boots had thus far proved extremely comfortable, and accordingly we prepared for our departure.  Rising early and partaking of a heavy breakfast.  Our farewells were made in a plaza close to the bridge, which was even at this early hour busy with people, some of who turned out to be the party of traders I had travelled with to the borders of Nul.

It was obvious that they were preparing for the return journey.  When they spotted me, a series of catcalls ensued.

Cries of, "There's that Suran spy!" and "Hey you turdbucket! Are you spying on these folk now?"  or.. "Someone call the militia and get this scum arrested! We'll take the little shit if you like! Yes give him to us, the Nula militia know what to do with that sort!" 

"Ignore those calls."  I told Harnen.  "For they are made in ignorance.  But all the same you had better get going, just in case the militia do come, and through no fault of your own you are detained."

"But.." He spluttered. "Does that mean that you are a spy?" 

"Not a bit of it." I retorted. "Sometimes just being a foreigner can to the uneducated make you suspect. But innocence can often be difficult to convince people of, so I propose to go quickly as well in order that I do not have to."

 

Thus we parted, Harnen heading home and I across the bridge into the rising sun.  It was a strange feeling, stepping onto the creaking moving structure after paying my toll.  Not at all unlike stepping onto a boat excepting that once on it the boat did not work unless you had a boat person.

The long awaited delight of experiencing the crossing was marred by the prickly sensation on my back. This was caused by the fading calls and jeers that in turn made me feel like I was running away from hostility once again, which in a way I was. That the hostility was imported and the Nula traders can only have been imbibed with it by their border patrols did not make it any less real or imposing.  What it did say was that I was right to exit Nul by the method I ended up using.

I knew now why all the following had taken place in Haanbeg. They were looking for proof of my guilt.  Furthermore they appeared to have had enough to convince them that I was indeed a spy. I could only hope that this stupid idea did not creep into the minds of Enarans.

 

And so to Dema, a journey of a hundred and sixteen great paces.  It even said so on the sign as I left Beda.  So it should take me about three days all things being equal as I reckon on achieving a little over thirty six long paces a day on average.

I should clarify terms here, for what in Valev is called a long pace and in Sur a Kings pace, that is to say, the distance covered by some thirteen hundred, (actually 1296) standard paces is in these parts called a great pace.  The actual distance is not quite the same however for the Einul pace is just slightly larger than the Surian equivalent and consequently a great pace is longer than a Kings pace by an extra sixty-three Surian paces, which is not a lot for one great pace, but soon adds up I assure you. Over that distance it will make a difference of four long paces.

 

I expected the road to follow the river as I had gathered that Dema was further upriver on the banks of one of the two main waterways which met at Beda.  This was not evidenced by the road, which quickly veered away from the river's route.  I could only presume that the river looped, and the road would short cut it.

At any rate, it was a wide and well-constructed highway, made of a stone base with a fixated gravel top that seemed impervious to wear, for there were no ruts or holes. The surface was even and relatively smooth.  For all its hardness, I do not believe that if anyone stumbled and fell that the ground would cut them.  Nor I suppose, and that might be the real reason for its texture, would it damage the paws of the mail cart beasts and yet it should give them good purchase without slowing the carriage.

There were plenty of travellers on the road but no porters for all the goods were in people drawn carts.  Some small like those I had seen before and some quite large, requiring a team of four to pull them.  Then of course there were the beast drawn carriages, not all of which were used for mail, for there were some in which the payload was a passenger.

I even saw one of these with the driver and two passengers tearing at break neck speed scattering all in their path.  They could be heard hallooing to warn of their approach long before they came.  I quickly learned to keep to the right side of the road when they approached from the front and to get off the road out of the way when they came from behind.

In its way this was a relief for the surface of the highway was hard, and though this made for quicker going it became very wearing on the legs and more particularly the feet. I tried to walk along the verges, but the slower pace that resulted always persuaded me to return to the main carriageway.

I made good progress the first day, being able to be exact as to the distance travelled. For at every great pace there was a stone block with the distance back to Beda and on to Dema marked clearly on it. Furthermore, at every sixth great pace was a small resthouse and usually some other buildings, sometimes hamlets or villages, sometimes towns.

 

Do not be deceived into thinking that there was nothing in between for that most definitely was not the case.  At no place on the way was there not visible within one long pace of the road, a dwelling place on one side or the other. By the same token, this does not mean that the area was overpopulated.  I reckon that on flat land I can see for four to five long paces in any direction and therefore would be able to see the next rest stations in both directions from a mid point.  Now of course this was not always possible.  Firstly because of the lie of the land and secondly because on the second day of travel the weather, which overnight had become sullen and with low cloud and persistent rain.

Excepting for the depressing psychological effect and the slower going it engendered, the rain would not normally have bothered me.  But my ground cape in which I rolled my sleeping pack for carriage during good weather and lay out at night to protect against moisture which also doubled as a raincoat in inclement weather had lost some of its impermeability to water. As a consequence, I found trickles of rain running down my back and I slowly grew wetter and wetter.

Furthermore, the new boots that had so far been excellent, when wet chafed my feet.  The effect of this was that I made a halt earlier in the day than I normally would have done with a resultant loss of progress. In real terms it was of no consequence as I was not under the constraint of a time limit.  But it still irked me, for I felt the need to see everything and get investigative results back to Iktna as soon as possible.

To get inside from the rain was nevertheless a tonic. I acquired a place in the bunkroom and stripped off to dry, hanging up my clothes to do likewise.  Fortunately the contents of my bag were greatly unaffected as was the inside of my sleeping pack.  Having identified and marked the offending wear points on the ground cape for repairs when dry, from my bag I donned the Surian warcoat, inside out to hide the resident stains, and went to get something hot to eat.

 

It was only later as I lay in my back on the bunk, watching my trousers release their moisture as they hung near the fire which the proprietor had lit for that purpose that I noticed how different was the clothing worn by the Enarans from my own. Up to that point I had assumed the styling to be the main variation, but there I could see it was not so. Fourteen sets of trousers gently steaming and mine still dripping. Fourteen shirts drying quickly, mine still sopping.  Fourteen topcoats wet through and dripping my ground cape dry and folded.

Only our boots had the same fate, but then I had only recently got mine and from the same or similar source to all the others.  My old Hivalev boots would have fared better when they were new or in better condition, for like the ground cape they were tarred to keep out rain and snow.  I vowed to tar my new boots and to find or make some tarred leggings as are commonly worn in winter at home, for these would have kept my trousers dry and with further rain more likely in the coming days and months ahead they would be far from a luxury.

 

There was no tar or even the makings to be had in the rest house, nor for that matter had they heard of it, and so my repairs would have to wait.  In the meantime I would have to hope that the heavens would moderate their activity.

The next morning did not hold out much of a fulfilment of that hope, for the skies were still grey and overcast.  But where it threatened to precipitate, that threat was not exacted for as the day drew on a breeze got up and began to break the cloud mass into scudding clumps, some of which would petulantly emit a shower, none of which fell on me.  The cool freshness of the air in fact invigorated me, and shod with my old boots for the new ones had dried hard and stiff, I strode out.

As dusk began to fall the lights of Dema came on and beckoned over the last two great paces.

 

To enter a strange city in the dark is a curious sensation, a mixture of anticipation, excitement and fear.  Fear of the unknown and different, for this place was unusual.  Unlike everywhere else I had been the onset of darkness here did not hasten people to their dwellings, but onto the streets. The thoroughfares were alive with revellers drinking, eating, singing and talking, all thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Pushing through the throngs I stopped various people, asking for directions to an Inn. "Inn?.. What Inn?"  The conversation would go above the noise.

"Any Inn . " I would d say.

"What? ..Any Inn? No, Volkara! ..I'm talking to this fellow... Now hold on I won't be a moment. ..As you were saying, this Inn. Which Inn in particular?" 

"Any Inn." I would say again. "Just any old Inn." 

"The old Inn did you say?  I don't know that one." 

"No!" I would patiently respond. "Any Inn." 

"I don't know that one either, but there are loads here. Just look around!  And yes I can talk to you now Volkara. ..What??"

The Inns they referred to were of course drinking establishments and I required a place to sleep and with not so much noise.  I did not know whether this was a special occasion or a regular occurrence.  There was nothing in the way of flags or bunting, or even a hint in the conversations I had overheard to indicate the former, so I must expect the latter and make my arrangements accordingly.

At length I found a hostelry in a quieter section of town, but it was markedly more salubrious and of consequence expensive.  No bunkhouses here, it was a case of one person, one room, albeit small and square as those in Nul.  What is more, I was required to write my name in a book kept by the housekeeper before I was given access and shown the room I would occupy.

They had not demanded payment, merely advised of the cost and looked a little troubled at my entry in the book.  For it was of course written in Surian as I had not mastered the Einul letters yet.

 

The room was a luxury. It contained a washbasin and towel, a nightsoil pot with lid and a down filled bed with covers.  The housekeeper also advised that baths were available and that at the end of the corridor were proper latrine facilities. I took up the option of a bath, and a warm and welcome one it was too.  The housekeeper who prepared the hot water and soaps told me that if that if I wished to bathe again on the morrow I would be attended by a body minder who would scrub me thoroughly and ensure that no parasites were left lurking in my body hair.  I could also be availed of a rub, whereby they would relax my muscles and ease my joints.A strange notion indeed. 

I am not entirely sure that I was prepared to try that, but the mere though of being itch and scratch free persuaded me.   Oh... I know that one is never really free, but you just get used to it do you not? Well that is unless it gets too bad.  There do not seem to be as many itchers in Hivalev as down at these levels and I always try and keep clean anyway.  A bath, hot or cold if taken properly can get rid of the worst of the itchers but it is never long before they are back, maybe because one cannot reach every part of the body to clean it.  At any rate, I had been infested again since Beda.   The bath helped, but I knew that the itchers were not all gone because I could not submerge.

 

Moreover, I suspected that the primary source was my clothing which had hung drying with the others. Sure enough as the sun next rose I needed a good scratch.  As I said, you get used to it.  But for some strange reason I took exception that morning.

I therefore breakfasted sumptuously and then presented myself to the bathrooms, leaving my clothes in the care of a launderer, who assured me that they would be returned itcher and odour free I put myself in the hands of the body minder.

The process of cleansing involved walking slowly into a sloping bath until you were completely submerged, then climbing out the other end.  I was then required to sit in a steam filled room for what seemed an agonisingly long time but was probably not long at all.  Emerging from the steam room I was required to take the slope bath again, this time considerably more quickly.  It must have been strained after every submergence for there were no itchers on its surface prior to my entry each time and there were after the first two dips at least.

 

This series of steam then bath was repeated five times, after which I was directed to a bench and asked to lie on it.  Not before time as the process had drained me.  The rest was short lived though for a fellow came along and applied a lathery solution to me and then scrubbed me from head to foot.  The feeling was ecstatic, but to my surprise was to be outdone after I had been hosed clean, by the body minders deft rubbings and squeezings. I was left invigorated and relaxed andclean!

 

The problems came when I went to the laundry for my clothes.  They had been cleaned all right but were not dry, and looked like they would not be for some time.  The launderer was most apologetic and understood that I could not go round dressed only in a towel, but to be fair had not promised the clothes back by a certain time.  I was offered a set of trousers and a shirt.  Not new, but from the laundry's stocks, to tide me over.  These I gratefully and diplomatically accepted.

Returning to my room I found a large uniformed fellow outside the door waiting for me.  Very forcefully I was ordered to accompany him to the proprietors' offices.  I asked what this was all about, but received no reply.  Just the repeated insistence, a little less aggressively this time but nevertheless carried with intent.  Despite being annoyed with the attitude I could see no reason for violence and so followed the fellow down to the lobby.

 

I was ushered into the office wherein waited the head housekeeper, a fellow whom I took to be the proprietor, and unmisakenly a male of the militia. The proprietor opened the proceedings.  

"Is this him?"  The question directed to the housekeeper. 

"Why, yes sire, that is him... er, him." 

"Do you claim to be.."  Looking at the registration book, then back at me. "Oshta O Ishtra?" "That is no claim," said I.  "For in all fact, aside your mispronunciation, that is my name." 

"Oh ho!" Burst in the militia male. "A smart arse Swezzer neut!. I can deal with this one!"

"Before you take him."  The proprietor interjected.  "I'd like some payment if there is any to be had",  then turning to me said. "I am gravely offended by this, and your ambassador shall know in the strongest terms "

"Hold on!" I started to say, but was shouted down by the militia male.

"Damn you! You bloody neuts!  Think you can get away with this do you?  Well one more word out of you and you won't be sent in chains back to your pox-ridden country. I'll slit your belly and we'll feed you to the dogs!"

Looking him straight in the eye I said in a grave and controlled voice. "Just you try it." 

 

My weapons were in my room, but in this confined space the militia male had no advantage despite his blade. He was not to know it, but this would not be the first time I had been in this situation, and I had faced far more formidable opponents than him.

As the blade came up I sprang in, flattening it against his belly with one hand, jabbing at his eyes with the other and applying a knee to his groin. The blade fell as he convulsed, trying to cover the twin points of pain, and as he bent in agony I smashed my other knee into his face then backed away and allowed him to drop to the floor.

I turned to the other two, who during this engagement had been transfixed in horror.  Now the housekeeper backed off, a scream gurgling in his throat. The proprietor was as white as snow and wore a look that said "I am dead!"

 

Controlling myself I said. "Would you now like to explain to me exactly what your problem is?" 

The proprietor was unable to speak and the housekeeper, though no longer likely to scream was a babbling incomprehensible wreck. 

"All right." I said at length. "If you will not speak now, let me correct what has been said." There was no response, so I continued. "I am no Swezzer.  I do not even know where that place is.  Well not for certain anyway." 

"You, you're a neut." Whined the housekeeper. 

"So?" I questioned.  "And so are you.  What of it?" 

"But," Chimed in the proprietor, regaining confidence in the realisation that he was not going to be harmed. "He is not claiming rooms here, nor," and this with guarded overtones  "Is he getting a special bath, scrub and rub." 

"Have you got something against neuts being clean?"  I retorted.

The proprietor hesitated in answering, partly due to the whimpering of the militia male.  At length he answered. 

"No. But not here.. This is a high-class establishment, for business people, traders and officials.  They and we do not like upstarts getting for free what they pay well for." 

"Who said that I would not pay?"  I asked. 

"You're a neut."  Came back the response.  "Neuts don't have money."

"I do." 

"Well it's not improbable that you've stolen it, after all you lied.  Why not steal?"

I considered this a harsh and unwarranted condemnation of neuts and a groundless slight against myself, and told him so.  The comeback was that I had palmed myself off as a Swezzer trader to gain access to the hostel but had been found out when I went too far by demanding the body bath.

 

I denied this, saying that I had done no such thing.  

"I am who I am, and have indicated no different at any time." 

"Hah!" He burst out. "There we have you! You wrote in Swezzer.  You thought no one here could read it but you were wrong! I can... and there is no Ishtra nor Oshta in Swezz.  I checked!" 

Holding my temper, I glanced meaningfully at the militia male and then back to the proprietor. The effect was not lost. He was at once back on the defensive.

"What you say may be true." I agreed.  "For as I have already said, I am no Swezzer.  I come from IKTNA which is in Hivalev." 

Blank faces. 

"A country beyond even Sur." 

From the looks they gave I could see that neither had so much as heard of Sur. 

"Do you know of Nul ?" I asked. 

"Yes" Was the reply. 

"But not of Sur, which is the next land along?" 

Blank looks again. 

"Oh well, it is really of no matter save that I speak the truth.  But whatever, someone ought to take a look at helping the militia male to stop bleeding do you not think?"

The proprietor concurred and despatched the housekeeper to gain assistance.  I did point out that I would be none too pleased if more militia appeared, especially if their attitudes were similarly aggressive.

 

The militia male did not look at all venomous now for although he had stopped whining and blubbering and was sat up in the corner  safely divorced from his blade he was still bleeding from the nose though he held his head back to ease the flow.

With the housekeeper gone and my piece said there was a silence in the room, the proprietor and I just looking at each other. 

I broke it with,  "Well? What now?" 

"I still think you have tried to deceive us."  He said. 

"I do not believe this!"  I cried in exasperation.  "How?" 

"Well, I'll accept that you're from far off but still, you didn't declare your neuter. In fact you concealed it by your adopted manner, only to be discovered when bathing." 

"What rubbish!"  I replied. "I have never concealed my gender and I was unaware that it was a requirement to state it at every turn. No one has stated thus and there are no signs nor even hints. How could I be expected to assume such a strange law exists?" 

"It's not law." The voice came from behind me, and belonged to a stout female. "But neuts have a certain manner. Yours is such that you have been taken for a male. How can this be so if it is not deliberate?" 

"I do not know."  Said I, "For I am neut and proudly so. I have at no time held any intention of offending your customs.  I was innocently seeking lodging away from the festivities in order that I may rest well for my travels."

"So you travel, do you?"  She said. "Well where are your party?"

"I am alone." I responded. 

"There!" She exclaimed.  "A neut? Alone? Travelling? For that I would call the militia."

 

She had a point. Put like that I was an oddity.  Neuts go on errands, not epics.  I had always been an oddity, but they were not to know that and in hindsight I suppose I had been lucky up to now that this situation had not happened before.   Perhaps everyone else had taken me for a male.  How strange that I had not thought of or realised this until now.

I was left to my introspection's as the female administered to the militia male.

In the midst of this she turned to say, "You're not at all a normal neut are you?  There aren't many males who would take on the militia, and yet look at this mess with you unhurt." 

"I. er.. am sorry about that."'  I said. "I suppose I went a little too far, but swallowing that degree of bigotry was just too unbearable, particularly when under threat." 

"And so you had to hit that hard?"

"Well in truth, he started it.  Furthermore he was armed and I was not so I had to make sure the blade was nullified." 

She had evoked that silent authority of the senior mother, and my words had become apologetic and subservient.  I was wriggling inside like a stranded fish, or more aptly like a naughty child.

Having cleaned up the militia male it appeared that I had been let off, for the female pronounced judgement that there was no great damage done.  She slipped him a coin, picked up his blade and returned it to him then ushered him out of the door, back to his barracks.

I made move to go, but was restrained by her eyes. 

"Even if all you say is true, your position here is unacceptable and I must therefore ask that you pay up and leave."  She said. 

"Very well" I nodded. "I can see how that could be."  

I delved into my purse for the appropriate coinage and laid it out on the table, including the equivalent of the coin she had given to the militia male.   They had not asked for that but I felt it prudent to sweeten my departure.  One never knows when it might be necessary to have someone on your side, and this incident could easily turn into one of those occasions.

Quickly, I returned to my room, collected my belongings and left.   I did go via the laundry for my trousers and shirt but they were still wet, so I left them.

 

This was madness. Everywhere I went I ended up running away.  This time it may have been down to my stupidity in not controlling my tongue. For I am sure I could have handled the situation so as to overcome the problem without resort to violence or legal castigation.  Nevertheless, I could not change things now and the net result was that once again I was 'on the run'.

Theoretically it should just be a case of finding somewhere else to stay. Practically I must expect repercussions from the militia when they discover that one of their kind has been bested.  The coin should keep the militia male’s mouth shut or have him concoct some tale, but I was not prepared to bank on that.  I suspected that individual would want my incarceration if not the execution of his earlier threat.

Knowing that I could not outrun the mail carriages and therefore the arms of the militia, I decided that I should hide up for a while.  Somewhere, where I could observe the mood of the city and the activities of the militia.  By this I could judge a safe time to either make a getaway or to resume my studies in the population at large.

 

Keeping out of sight as much as possible, for although there was no hue and cry yet, when it was raised memories might be jogged and the trail to my hideout found, I searched for an appropriate vantage point. The term hide up came to be particularly apt in this instance, for I discovered a place in the eaves where two dwellings met that would secrete me.

It was not weatherproof.  Nor was it particularly secure, unless I kept still.  But it did afford me a view over a local market place and the barrack house of the district militia.  It was a wonder that I was not detected in getting into position, but that was indeed the case.

From my vantage point I could observe the comings and goings of the people and as well as keeping an eye on the militia I could make a reasonable population count.  I had to make a number of recounts because it did not make sense.  Even with another change of assumptions it would not tally to what I expected.   My only conclusion was that the count told the truth.

 

Here, as well as the now expected lack of neuts, there was a definite diminishment in the number of males.  But oddly enough it seemed to be affecting the middle years most.  As if there had been a shortfall in males but that this was now remedied.  I could see this for certain as where in Sur and Valev, the small children stay at home, here they were dragging around after their mothers.

Obviously this practice was necessitated by the lack of males and neuts, which meant that the females were compelled to perform a number of other functions in addition to child rearing.  I was now intrigued.  Why should this area be suffering, and yet it not affect other parts of the same land?  But then, that was exactly what was happening in Hivalev.  Perhaps then, there was something of real value to be learned here.  If so, it was worth all the problems that the militia would cause, and cause they would, for already they had been posting notices for my arrest.

I could not read the wording, but then it was not necessary to do so.  The graphics said it all.

I had not been here long enough to tell what was a special patrol and what was not, but there did not appear to be any undue activity emanating from the militia post.  I did note that their patrols went in two's. Maybe they always did but I suspected not, for otherwise why were there not two militia males at the hotel?

Enough of pondering probabilities. What to do? Move by day and I was bound to be seen, move by night and I would be obvious if seen.  Alternatively I could stay put and hope for interest to wane. With that option I could do nothing but observe and the impulse now was strong for information. I chose to stay.

Before I went pell mell, I had to think how and where I would be likely to obtain the answers to my questions.  More relevantly now, what questions could I ask?

 

Firstly, I suppose it has to be something on the lines of; "What happened to all the young mature males?" Dependant on the answers if any, that I got from that, other questions would follow.

As darkness fell my position became uncomfortable. I was warm enough, having manoeuvred myself into my sleeping sack, but could not move about to relieve discomfort. It had rained intermittently and I was laying in a puddle where the roofs met. I felt like it was my presence that prevented the water running away and if I moved to lay in an alternative position the rain would run right inside with me.

As an observation post this place was no longer necessary as it quickly became obvious that militia patrols were rare after the nightly festivities ceased. I opined that night time was the time to go when I chose to.  For the present I would just have to find somewhere more amenable for sleeping.

 

Dragging myself from the pack, the chill hit me. Clearly winter had been sneaking up on me without my noticing, my having been coddled up in hostelries too long. I retreated from that position as quickly as I could without making noise to disturb those who slept below. It would have been the height of stupidity, to rouse the town to my presence just because I was cold.

It did not take long, fortunately to find a more amenable corner with some shelter from the wind and rain, and I settled there for a good nights sleep although I will confess it was not as comfortable as the night before.

I woke to a morning, crisp but not clear. My thoughts turned to breakfast as I scratched contentedly. Oh well, It had been a good scratchless day, now back to 'normal'. 

I just wished everything else could be put back to how it was.

Dragging myself from the sleeping sack I crept down from the roof and into the larder room of the house where I liberated some cheeses and a few other titbits. One of the effects of carousing until the small hours was that the inhabitants woke late the following morning enabling me to move freely back to my perch with sustenance for the day.

 

I did not regard my action as theft, for I would deposit a coin on my departure. To leave one now would invite examination and possibly lead to my exposure. This came earlier than I could have suspected, for lying in my redoubt watching for militia patrols and munching on some partly stale bread I became aware of odd movement to my right and on the far side of the half empty market place.

Looking that way, it seemed that a group of children had spotted me.  How, I do not know. I ducked backward, thinking that perhaps it was not me they were looking at. Carefully I poked my head forward again to see.  No mistake. Pointing fingers came up, directed straight at me.

"By the throne! What now?" I cursed. There was nothing for it but to move, and that right quickly.

Crawling backward along the roof joint to where I had slept I picked up my belongings and made my way swiftly back down to the ground. Ducking through the kitchen area I nearly ran into one of the house's inhabitants. Slowing only to flick a coin in the direction of the half awake fat male I ran around him and out of the door with my call of, "Thanks for the cheese!" left behind as made my exit.

 

Dodging between houses, leaping fences, scrabbling over walls and running along fast filling streets into alleys, zigzagging through road and passage. Pausing only for breath and to gauge signs of pursuit.  None here, but a commotion what I guess to be two streets away.  A sharp look from a passer by, I can see her mind ticking over, putting three and three together. Thinking "Where have I seen this person?" I am gone before the answer fits into place and she brings the pursuit here.

Down the alley I go, then deliberately backtrack. Even if she puts them onto me I will not be going where they think. The feeling courses over me as I run.  Slowly, but irresistibly, as I dodge down a passage. Aaah!! As I cross a small plaza, Urrgh!! As I scamper through a hole in a fence, Ohh!!  Now is not the time for me to have to do it!  But I must!  Where? There is only one thing for it. There are no hostelries this far from the town centre I must use a private latrine.  As I skip through yards and gardens, they are there, but using one risks being trapped. I cannot help it, I must go. Slipping into one of the tiny boxes I fasten the door, hoping against hope that I have not been seen and that no one else comes to use it.

 

The relief is tremendous, and once done I prepare to leave. But there is nowhere to wash and no means of cleaning myself properly. No. I cannot stay here all day. I will have to carry on unclean and do the job later. If I can.

I leave considerably lighter and unbelievably, undetected. There is neither hue nor cry to be discerned. Perhaps, just perhaps, my stop over has taken them past me. If so they will soon realise it and be coming back. I had been heading more or less in the direction of the rising sun, now pale and insipid well up in the sky, and now I turned to put the sun on my right shoulder and the bulk of the town on my left.

Using the same technique of keeping low and near fences, using alleys and passages wherever possible I made the edges of town and open country. Well, open figuratively. There were plenty of bushes, hedges and trees to give me cover.  I kept going for about a subspan.

It was a cold grey day and as yet there were still patches of mist in the hollows. The exertions of the moving so far had ensured however that cold was not one of the things I felt. I stopped near a stream to clean myself up and ponder on the oddities of the body that my bowels could not have waited until now and on fate itself, that the act of defecation may have endangered my escape.

 

It struck me then that I had to go on and that there would be no solutions forthcoming from Dema. Moments before I had been thanking my fortune. Now I was cursing it.

Well, there would be no answers solicited from this stream or the fields hereabouts. It was all grazing land for the local equivalent of Buika. There was nothing to be learned from that. Onward then. Find another town. See if there is the same disparity in population there. If so see if I can find out why. If not, see if they know why it was the case in Dema.

But best, I thought, If I did not bump into too many people until I was well clear of the capital, and so all day I walked on through fields, along hedges through copses and woods, across streams and even a few small rivers where I found bridges and fords. I carefully avoided all buildings and any sign of habitation, to which event nightfall found me on the lower slopes of a range of hills and in a sheltered wood.  I set up camp here and adapted back to country ways so easily I did not even realise I was doing it.

 

A day to cross these hills, and two days afterwards walking through more open country with lots of large orchards brought me to an obstacle too big to negotiate easily.  I could have swum the river with my pack as a buoyancy aid but I had no desire to. By now, I had calculated it should be safe enough to enter a town of the size that would have a bridge to cross this river.

Accordingly, I followed the bank upstream for half a day until such a place presented itself. The town was called Narway, and after crossing the bridge into the town for the privilege of which I was required to pay a toll, I settled myself down for a meal in the only Inn thereabouts.

Tucking in to a tasty stew I was interrupted by an intrusive local.   Lowering his corpulent frame onto the bench opposite me, he intoned;  "Bit off track here aren't you, heh?" 

I looked up but did not reply to the comment.  For in truth I did not really think the speaker meant what he said. 

"Come for the fruit have you?"  He continued. At my silence he carried on. "Well, you're too late this year." I raised an eyebrow. "That's the trouble with buying in Uta and Nogal.  You only see the end result."

"Oh, I knew that someday you Swezzers'd come down this far looking for a better deal despite the regulators.  You could have got one too, normally. But all the fruit we can pick is spoken for already, so you've wasted your time. I'll allow you to purchase me an ale for saving your trouble though!"  

Well? What should I do? Play a bluff and swallow this tale or play my pieces straight and possibly stir up a buzzers nest? No contest.

"When do you start collecting the fruit?" I asked. 

"Picking". Came the reply.  "And in about ten days, but anything that's picked after forty days is suspect and the later it gets, the more of it is rotten." 

"But how does that affect things?" I asked. "Just pick it all before the forty days." 

"Easy for you to say."  Came the reply.  "With all the young males in Liman, there aren't enough people to pick it all so quick and that puts the price up for the amount that we are able to amass."

"Oh" Said I "And."  I was about to continue but was interrupted. 

"You'll get a better price here mind, than in Nogal.  But what would you pay?" 

Lost for an answer, I hedged with, "That depends. And anyway it is academic as you say there is nothing left." 

A hesitation, then a retort of "But, next year!?"

He sat back pleased with himself, then leaned forward conspiratorially.  "Maybe some of this years if the price is right."

Joining the conspiracy, I replied hushed, "What sort of price are you contemplating?"

He rubbed his chin and looked into the corner of the room as if searching out a spy, before answering.  "Six Isins a basket now, five next year on a minimum of two thousand baskets."

"Presumably you are getting less than that now in Nogal?"  I countered.  

"By my shirt! Of course we are!  Three Isins at best is all the cartel will pay.  We know you pay them nine so this way we'll both make a profit. Eh ?"

I thought for a bit and came up with.  "I cannot see how it can be done. Who ever has paid for the fruit you have not yet picked will be mightily displeased if you send some of it elsewhere." 

"A pox on them!"  He cried, leaping to his feet face drawn back in anger. "Rokka and Lemin can find some other way to pay for their armies! It's enough that they have our sons for their bloody war!"

I was too shocked to reply. 

"Well, are you interested or not?"  His agitation was plain. 

Shaken, for I now knew where all the young males were, I said that I would have to think on it. How could there have been no sign, nor talk of war?  What kind of situation was this?

I must have muttered something under my breath for another fellow took up the argument. 

"They don't know!"  

The fat male interjected.  "How could they know?  They never get past Nogal normally and the war hasn't started yet.  Do you think Lemin would tell them? They can only suspect something was up like the price of fruit now Rokka controls its sale to them. Why d'you think this fellow's here?" 

By 'them', I assumed the Enarans were referring to Swezzers.

"That also means," Said the other fellow, staring malevolently at me.  "That Swezz is not in with this war.  What if they are against us?" 

This last was addressed to the room though directed at me.  

Under pressure for a comment, I blurted. "I am sure they will be...  With you I mean." 

"Why?" Came the retort. 

Here I was lost, and could only admit that I did not know.  I was asked aggressively as to why I shouldn't know as I was a Swezzer so I should at least know where opinions lay.

I was forced at this juncture to confess the truth, which although it annoyed them for wasting their time, where I came from. It was apparent that neither I, nor my country could be a threat. I was sworn to silence on the subject.  An oath I willingly and honestly took.  I also made an exit with unseemly haste, before anyone got it into their heads that mine was a tongue which could be silenced more reliably by force.

 

By crossing the Limwas bridge (again a toll) and following the banks of the Narwas river on the other side to that I had come up, I went back downriver until I came to the point opposite where I had originally met the waterway. Here I branched off, heading more or less the way I had been going before I encountered this obstacle.

Travelling once again in a solitary fashion, avoiding habitation and as far as reasonably able, the dwellers of this land, I made my way further and further from my source of concern.  On occasions I would sneak into villages just to make a head count.  These all tied reasonably well with the recalculation of ratios, meaning that this entire area had been affected by the call to arms. The size of the amassed armies must be almost immeasurable, and wholly beyond belief.

I had thus far seen no sign of its bivouacs, nor did I wish to. I had seen war once and that was enough for me.  In truth, I could hardly be dragged in as I was before, on the pretence that I was a national of this land.   I had no wish to court, or be directed into danger however, as when there is fighting going on all sorts of innocent bystanders get hurt.  It was not my intention to be one of them.

 

Four more days and nights into this journey of isolation I caught a whiff of an odour I had not smelled for a long time, but I knew it instantly.  The sea.

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© Alexander Travell