"That was a brave stand you were making there." He said. I use the word 'he' for although different to me, these were people. I had seen a few of them in Pom. Those must have been wealthy merchants for these were a sight shabbier and smellier, although I suspected I might not smell too good myself after my exertions.
"What brings a Suran to Nul?"
"Thank you for the compliment." Said I, and explained that I had not really much choice in the matter. That I was not Surian, but a Valever just trying to get out of Latii. He observed that I was lucky they came along when they did as they were on routine border patrol and would have not been this close except for the increased activity on the Latiian side this last day. In fact they must be watchful now for further signs of aggression.
At this point the leader of the group came over and through the interpretation of the first fellow asked the same questions of me and got the same answers. I asked of him why they had attacked. The reply to which was that the Latiinswere on Nula soil, had refused to leave when challenged and were too tempting a target anyway, as they were all spread out and outnumbered, apparently a rare occasion and one which pleased him.
He then invited me to assist in the moving of all the bodies to the border as I had helped in their slaying. I could hardly refuse, but asked as to why this was being done. The answer was that it had become customary to do so if any of the two races were killed on each other’s land, together with the explanation as to why. This normally worked in avoiding further unnecessary killing.
"We shall have to see this time though." He said. "For there are fears that this is a testing of the water for invasion as the Latiins had been extra active for a whole season now, and have recently gone into a frenzy."
I wanted to ask more, but duty called. Some of his troops had been badly hurt and were being tended to. (There were dead of course, but they needed no attention.) In addition a number of the soldiers had minor cuts and abrasions that needed cleaning and all were in need of their leaders' support and encouragement.
So I set to work with these Nula, moving corpses. At first it was awkward as there was an imbalance of strength and height, but working with their smallest fellow and him on the down side improved matters. There was lots of excited chatter among them, of which I picked up only the odd word so understood none of it. However, the upshot of it all was that when all the bodies were laid out in a line just downhill of the white post everyone just waited about. For what I could not imagine, nor discern as the only Nulan who spoke Surian was away tending the injured.
I made to go back to him but it was made plain that I should stay where I was. Not wanting to have to fight my out of Nul, I complied, but nevertheless took the opportunity to retrieve and clean the stabber and my arrows. Of the four I had shot here only two were serviceable but I had three that had not yet been used still sticking out of my sack.
How I was now glad I had not discarded it or my sleeping pack despite the temptation in moments of flight, is beyond measure. As even now delving into it I pulled out the last of the looted Latiian food. It still smelled all right and so I devoured it. My water bottle had sprung a leak however and I was forced into begging for a drink. This was only too happily given, and after it I lay down to rest, falling easily asleep.
The gentle shaking woke me. I opened my eyes and smiled at the Nulan face above me, then started as my waker said one word. "Latiin."
I was immediately on my feet, alert and my eyes following his pointing finger. Sure enough, a much larger patrol was headed this way, and it was in a fighting formation. As they approached, the Nul formed themselves into a two rank half circle with just enough room between each fellow for him to swing, the second rank covering the spaces from behind. I stood slightly apart from them, not knowing what was wanted of me when the interpreter called me to stand to the rear of the half circle, as if guarded by it. No questions, I was there in a trice.
The Latiians came up quite close and stopped. A shouting match between the Latiian and Nulan leaders ensued, followed by both advancing with interpreters to a point equidistant between the sides and into conference. This lasted for some while with some loss of temper in both parties.
At length the Nula came back and the interpreter came to me.
"I don't believe it!' He said. "This is all over you. Just one scabby Surian. However they have agreed at length to back off and leave it. They want you really badly, but have given up on that and accepted that you are now in the protection of Nul so long as we promise never to let you back into Latii. They do demand however that they see you up close. What for, I don't know, but be careful. We do not want a major incident or war over this, so have given in to their demands. Come on then."
"What if I will not go?" I said.
"You cannot refuse." He said. "We have agreed, and they will fight if we can't prove our case. If it comes to that we will hand you over." "But why then, did you fight before?" I asked.
"Because they were aggressively on our territory and before, we didn't know that their sole intention was to get you...Now come on!"
I followed him out and right up to the Latiian leader. This took a good look at me, turned and called for another to approach. This other one I recognised as being from the first party at the two woods. A question was asked and the two wood Latiian nodded and was dismissed.
The Latiian leader then turned back to me and spoke in its tongue. The Nulan interpreter told me what was said sentence by sentence after translating the words first for his captain.
There would be no more patrolling this close to the border. It was confirmed I was the one they were after and the leader had me marked. It would like to tear mine, and every other Suran spies head off. I interjected here to point out that one, the word was Surian and I was not.
"I am a Valever." I said. "Not a spy, and it only wished it could tear my head off because it were not able to."
The interpreter said these words but indicated that I had been in error by gender. This was definitely a male. There are no Latiian neuts.
"I called it,it,'' I said, "because I saw Latiians as beasts."
"Oh no," Replied the interpreter "They are people as you or I, just different."
The Latiian having regained some of its composure after nearly exploding with wrath at my remarks, demanded to know what was ‘Valever’ and what had I been doing in Latii if, as I purported I was not a Suran spy.
I considered telling it to mind its' own business but thought of the Nula behind me and wondered if that now they were outnumbered and I was actually stood just inside Latii, they would fight. I did not think it worth putting to the test, so I told the Latiian I had merely been making my way out of Latii just as the Surian army would be when it had bloodied the Latiian nose enough to remind them that raiding into Sur to kill farmers, herders and merchants was not a thing that the King of Sur appreciated.
The Nula were astounded they knew of no Surian army in Latii and the Latiian was livid. It would have tried to kill me there and then but for its own interpreter turning and running. It blustered in confusion, then saw the arrow in my hand and realised that even at this short distance I could load and shoot before it got to me. Unlike the previous leader who had thought that its death would buy mine, this one knew it was on its own. The damage had been done and suicide gains nothing. It stormed off back to its troops cursing loudly.
We returned to the Nula formation which now backed off to allow the Latiians to collect their dead. The Nula leader meanwhile sent three runners off with the news as insurance against the Latiians thinking they might still keep it quiet by annihilating us all.
"But why all this fuss?" I questioned.
The interpreter answered for Nul in that no one had ever invaded Latii before. "Battles had been won, and their advance stopped but nobody had actually been strong enough to successfully invade their land. It had been tried, but had never succeeded. Stories tell of wars between themselves where territory changed hands, but that's different. Everyone is fed up with their raiding and if Sur can do this, so can Nul, and for that matter Swez."
"Of course," He continued, "they don't want us to know until the Suran army is destroyed, as it must be eventually."
"If you only knew." I thought, but said nothing.
The Latiians retrieved, stacked and burned their dead, this time leaving an honour guard whilst the main force departed. At this, the Nula also withdrew, with me among them. They would not let me free until I had been given leave by their commander, who was two days march away. I resolved to make no issue of this as they had after all saved me at the last moment, and I did not really know where I was. I might also learn something useful. You never know.
Well, I did learn something. Nul and Sur are not exactly on the best of terms as I was already aware from my time in Pom. There is trade and controlled passage between them, but an apparent long-standing mutual dislike and distrust exists. Furthermore, despite my protestations, to the Nula as before to the Surian recruiters I was Surian and that was an end to it.
The Nula seemed generally to be a not very polite, almost gruff race. Characteristically, they are taller than Surians or Valevers but not nearly as tall as Latiians. Of a broader and heavier physique with a ruddier complexion they are inclined to more facial hair. It was this aspect of the commander that was most intriguing. His beard had a life of its own, and jiggled and squirmed as he became apoplectic at my presence.
"It was all a trick!" He ranted. "Blasted Latiins about as trustworthy as the bloody Surans! Probably in each others' pockets to fool unwary Nul! Well, he wouldn’t be fooled! I could just bugger off. I was about as dangerous as a wet fart and he wasn't going to spare troops to baby-sit me when there was so much to do!"
All that was through interpretation. There was so much more, a good deal of which needed no elucidation. Some was plainly too offensive to translate. Nevertheless, I was free to go and did so, though I knew not to where.
The best I could do was to follow roadways where they would lead me so long as it were not back to Latii. There had been no instruction or request to avoid such a direction. It was not necessary.
I could find no one who spoke Surian and nor could I talk in Nulish, so getting anything from directions to supplies was extremely difficult. Though I did in fairness quickly pick up the words for food, drink, yes and no, I had no real grasp of the language so foreign did it sound.
After two days of walking south through this strange land of scattered hamlets, I came upon a village the buildings of which were some in the traditional six sided form and some in the Latiian fashion of only four sides. A curious arrangement as two sides were always longer than the others and the roof pitched in such a way that it came down to the long sides only, the short sides being angled up to meet the pitch. The village lay by a large river and moored on the bank were boats. These seemed a bit on the large side for ferries to so small a community and I surmised that they must therefore be for the carriage of goods up and down stream. A stilted dialogue of hand and facial expressions with the occupants established this assumption to be correct. The production of a coin secured my passage downriver, southward and away from Latii.
I clambered on board only to be shooed off, much to my dismay. Had I paid for something entirely different? Or perhaps not paid enough? Where was I in error? The boatman disembarked after me and beckoned that I should follow him. This I did, and was led to what turned out to be a lodging house. The boatman spoke briefly to one I presumed to be the proprietor. They might have been discussing my execution and robbery for all I knew, but I was forced by circumstances to trust them albeit with some misgivings.
The proprietor received a token from the boatman who then left, but turned to give a reassuring wave as he departed the room. I say 'he' but I did not know the correct gender or indeed how to tell with the Nula. I presumed it to be much the same as for Surians. Quite difficult when clothed similarly or you do not know the individual circumstances, to differentiate between male and neut until about their fortieth year when the male starts to age rapidly as they go into decline. Prior to that of course, as a generalisation males are larger than neuts but there are small males and large neuts. If you do not know the age the only way, when adult is to tell by the manner of clothing and social standing. In Valev and in Sur, Neuts of twelve summers and more were normally obliged to wear the Kasak, a thigh length sleeveless and neck less shirt, much like a Surcoat. Males of course under any circumstances did not, and because of my father most of the time neither did I. Even in both armies, the male uniform coat was sleeved and cut at the waist. I saw no Kasaks even among the soldiery, and knowing none of the norms here, I could only hazard guesses as to age and work from that.
The females of course were easy to identify, and there seemed to be a good proportion of them. My intentions were to enquire as to population proportions as, and when I could command enough language, that or find someone who spoke mine. But for now I would eat. I had been directed to a table in the corner of the room, (It felt strange and yet protective to sit in this sharp angled niche ) whence the proprietor served steaming bowls of food. First a thick, soup like substance with bread and when this was devoured thankfully, a cake or pie thing with a delicious gooey sauce.
The housekeeper looked incredulous that one so small to him (again I could not tell, so deferred to the masculine) could eat so much at one time. Nevertheless he seemed very pleased at my effusive and obvious praise and provided a mug of ale to wash it all down. It was a very full and happy Valever that was led to an upstairs room. Yes, in Nul even in towns this small there are plenty of buildings with upper floors. The room contained a huge bed and there were also ablution facilities which I took good use of prior to retiring to the best sleep I had enjoyed for many a night.
The shake was so gentle it felt like my mother, and I had a momentary dream that I was at home, so snuggled myself into the luxurious warmth. Then came the shake again, with a very quiet, very foreign female voice.
I woke with a start and sat up to the sight of a startled Nula girl by candlelight. Realising there was no danger I began to rub the sleep from my eyes. As the girl regained her composure, she signed that I should dress and follow her. I could not imagine as to why and indicated my query. Her reply was to cup her hands in front of her, make a rippling motion and point away. Most confusing! And then I had it! The boat was leaving1
I went to leap up, and seeing my alarm the girl motioned that I should slow down. There was no haste and I should eat first. Well I never! Gruff they may seem, but their hospitality to a stranger was amazing. I was being treated like a noble. Now either they thought I was one, or the Nula live well.
The girl left the room then, but it seemed to me a little reluctantly. Almost as if she could not take her eyes off of me. I could only suppose that they did not see many Surians in these parts. Nevertheless I washed again with the last of the water, dressed in my cleanest clothes, packed up my belongings and descended to the hostelry below. Despite it not being light yet outside, it was obvious that someone had been up a while as there was a small fire going in the main hearth, which had been cleaned from the previous evening. Hot breads were brought in immediately by the girl, together with a heated milk drink. I had not been sat long when the boatman came in and joined me for breakfast. He ate heartily and when the time came to depart, took a parcel of breads with him.
As we left, I tried to reimburse the girl on behalf of the proprietor. But neither she nor the boatman would hear of it. So I thanked her instead in a tongue she could not understand but with a smile she could. And so I set out on my first river journey, notwithstanding my little trip on the Survov or straight river crossings that had been made by more conventional means.
This boat was not unlike those I had seen on the Grivov by Iossna or on the Survov at Rega. It appeared quite large at first, but when the crew were in at their rowing stations they made it seem much smaller and more comparable to Surian versions. It was the crew, six in all that the boatman had taken the hot breads for and having consumed these, they set to with a will to propel the 'Vlaskog' which I took to mean the boat – downstream on the Nulflas river.
Such a good pace was set that I considered it a little extravagant to have such a large crew. That is until I contemplated the return upstream journey, a trip that I hoped I would not have to make on this particular stretch. Not that the river itself, or the people were to my disliking, merely its proximity to Latiian territory.
For its main part the river was wide enough, though it had narrow and broad stretches and its banks were ever changing. A fact which provided some enjoyable stimulus as my stilted attempts at communication bore little fruit with the boatman and crew, who were about the business of speeding the way.
I had unfastened and rolled out my sleeping pack and laid it to air over a pile of sacks at the front of the boat, and spent the greater time sat or laid upon it watching the world go by. That, and observing the work of the boat master as he continually pulled and adjusted his steering oars, and gave instruction and encouragement to the crew. That they should all pull together, or one side cease to aid turning as necessary. All in all it was a complicated task which after much thought would have been simplified by a single oar mounted centrally at the rear of the boat and a drum or the like beaten by a mechanical device or a small neut.
At around noontime the boat was brought to rest at a small Jetty at another village. We had passed a few by now and this one was in no way remarkable from the rest. However the boatman sent three of his crew off, and quite soon a working party of seven locals arrived. A brief discussion with the boatman ensued, the locals departed, then returned with sacks and barrels for loading. This loading was done mainly by the locals, with the odd adjustment by the crew. But it was all done under the direction of the boat master.
Part way through this process, the first three crew returned to relieve the others of this duty. They then indicated that I should join them for lunch. Out of politeness I did so, but could hardly eat, so well had I been fed this last day. After lunching I passed the hosteller a small coin in payment, which was taken eagerly despite it being from the Valev mint. When the crew attempted reimbursement it was made clear that my coin was enough for all. This brought smiles to their faces and rough pats on my shoulders that I presumed to be gestures of appreciation.
Some more lessons. Nula are honest, and my coins were worth a lot more here. I should be a lot more careful and sparing with them. These were mine, but it was close to the last of them and those in my belt were not really for my use if avoidable. They were really just entrusted to me by Pratak, High Chief of Iktna.
Quite replete, I came back to the boat only to be dismayed by its appearance. I considered it to be so loaded as to be almost unsafe. However, I assumed that the boat master must know its limits and so said nothing, but climbed aboard, re-laid my pack and sat once more to observe.
Getting away from the jetty was not so easily done as before, the boat being very heavy and low in the water. The crew had worked up a good lather by the time we had manoeuvred into midstream and were underway.
Their task was much eased by the current. The boat however required forward movement relative to the flow in order to steer, and some stretches, particularly bends caused major exertions on their part and no small disquiet on mine. I remembered how cold I had been the last time I had been immersed in a river and did not relish the prospect of another dunking.
As we progressed the river gradually broadened and I imagined, deepened. Nevertheless it seemed providential that the only traffic we encountered was at a narrows, and coming in the opposite direction. There was a flailing of oars and some exhaustive manoeuvring to bring our boat to a standstill near the bank. Then a shouting match developed between the two boats as to who should go first.
At length it was decided that the boat coming upstream should have priority. Our boat master edged the boat closer to the bank, made fast and shipped the oars. As the other boat came past it was obvious that even though lightly loaded in comparison to us, they were making heavy work of it in the faster current caused by the narrowing of the river. There was not a wave or greeting from them and I suspect they were too busy for it. Even so, a Surian or Valever would have made the effort to make an acknowledgement.
Manoeuvring our boat once they had passed was a highly risky enterprise as the crew had to push off, and then row backwards in order to get a good position to negotiate this stretch of river. Water came over the stern on more than one occasion.
Late in the day came another incident in which a number of large rocks had to be avoided, and then worst of all what was tantamount to a miniature rapids running into a lake. How that was passed without mishap was beyond me.
The lake was most pleasant excepting that having done no physical work, and being exposed to the wind I felt a chill and was reminded of the lateness of the year. Thinking then of home, the people there would soon be putting on their heavy coats against the Hivalev cold, gathering in fuel for the winter, making the last cuts of the long grasses for fodder and assembling the Buika from the far pastures. Ah, home! A restful and comforting thought.
I was brought out of my reverie by the curious motion of the boat. It had acquired an un-rhythmic lurch, the cause of which I could not discern. The crew were all rowing together, there was no current to carry us and this movement had not occurred before. Seeing my consternation, the boat master indicated that he had changed the direction of travel of the boat and this was quite normal. Looking at the water, the swells had grown and the angle we now hit them must account for the motion. This began to concern me bearing in mind the lack of freeboard and that we had come much further from the shore in order to pass a headland.
As nonchalantly as possible I rolled up my sleeping pack and laced it up tight in its wet proof cover. In this form it had kept me afloat before and I determined that should mishap occur, it would do so again. My thoughts never far from this were directed elsewhere as we rounded the headland. For away off on this shore I could see a large town.
Turning to the boatman excitedly I pointed toward it. His response did not do justice, for even at this distance it was beautiful.
"Bayom." Was all he said.
Bayom ! Our arrival there caused me as much relief as the escape into Nul. Stepping off the boat I had a curious sensation of not being on solid ground, which fortunately did not last. Meanwhile, a gang of porters arrived, haggled a while, then agreeing a price for their work began to unload the boat.
I tried in vain to gain the attention of the boat master. Instead he despatched one of his crew off, with the obvious intent that I should go with the fellow. I relented as I suspected that they would be finding me lodgings for the night again prior to departure the next day.
I was wrong. After being led through a maze of streets, the dwellings of which were in the traditional Surian form, but far more ornate, we came to a section of the town where the paths widened and the houses of the wealthy lay. These were magnificent buildings half hidden behind tall hedges and trees. Occasionally one would lay open to the street across an expanse of grass, its walls standing proud for all to see. And proud they were, tall and refined multi-porticoed and ornate. Some stark white, some grey and austere, others honey coloured in the late afternoon light.
We turned into a row of slightly lesser edifices and it was one of these to which I was led. The crewman and I passed through the shrubbery and under a colonnade of arches leading to a huge wooden door. The crewman's knock was answered by an old neut (no doubt here) and we were allowed inside, to wait in the foyer whilst the neut fetched his master.
This gave me time to wonder at the beauty and complexity of the building. The foyer/reception area was in the traditional hexagon but with its corners comprising thick columns which rose high then curved to meet at the centre, forming a huge dome all inlet with coloured glass panels to highlight its delicacy and strength. Each wall had a bronze coloured metal lamp holder fashioned as a strange tree, the leaves of which were cut glass or jewels and each was backed by an ornate reflective glazed panel.
So entranced was I by all this I did not hear the master of the house enter.
"So we have Surans about have we?"
I turned, amazed at hearing my language again. The speaker was either a male close to his time or an elderly neut. The clothing, soft flowing and colourful said the former. Instinct said the latter. Stood beside the neut was I guessed the owner of the house. A tall merchant in subtle but sumptuous gowns of shimmering and fragile appearance.
"Had your tongue cut out have you?" The second neut scolded gently.
”Why, no sires." Said I. "I was just.... just taken aback by the beauty. I am so sorry for my bad manners."
"Ho ! Definitely Suran ! '" The neut laughed and translated to his master . He then enquired as to what brought me to this house, to which I truthfully said I did not know. I had come with the crewman.
Explaining that I had obtained passage down the river on the boat this crewman worked on, I had followed him because I had thought he was taking me to overnight lodgings and when the boat went on I would rejoin them. At this, a three way conversation sprang up between all the present Nula, at the end of which the crewman gave me a pat on the shoulder and left. I immediately asked the Sur speaker if I was supposed to go with the crewman. His reply was in the negative, explaining that the boat would not in fact be going down river tomorrow. Quite the reverse, they would load up and head back up river. This was as far as the boat would go.
I questioned this as we were not at the sea yet. This raised eyebrows on both neut and master when translated.
The neut then said. "You have travelled far then to know of the sea. Are you from Ulta or perhaps even far Zladisov?"
"Neither." Said I. "For I am not Surian. Permit me to introduce myself." I delayed for acquiescence, then continued.. "Before you stands Okhta Asiavakna of the Iktna family Zumina in Hivalev."
More raised eyebrows and translation then the neut spoke. "I have never heard of such a place and neither has my friends' master here. You must tell us more."
My reply was that I would happily tell them of Valev, but requested that they in turn tell me where I might obtain lodgings and transport onward. The neut concurred, introducing himself as Dornkas Hanbeg and the male as Merchant Slessig of Bayom. He explained that the boatman had sent me to the merchant because it was he who would sell the boatman's wares and he could think of none other more likely to be able to help. As it was, Slessig knew of Dornkas' ability to speak Surian and called him to the house to interpret.
Slessig also saw it as his solemn duty now so entrusted, to assist me at the request of his associate. This clarified; I told them of my home in the mountains, of the long winters, and the hardship. Of the beauty and the majesty of the peaks. Of how Buika fleece from Hivalev is prized for its length and texture but of how our crops were poor on the thin soil and how hardier species were necessary, and of my search for them.
This was a story I considered close enough to reality to solicit the best solutions without revealing the true situation. This caused Dornkas and Slessig to confer once more, at the close of which Dornkas made a subservient and conciliatory gesture then Slessig indicated his farewells and left.
I looked at Dornkas expectantly.
He wore a look of dejection, shook his head and said. "Please come with me my Lord. I have been told to find you accommodations at the lakeside until we can find you passage. Merchant Slessig says he might enquire on the morrow."
"Why, hold up!" I blurted, indignified. "Whilst appreciating any help you may give, I do not wish to be a burden to anyone. I am capable of finding both even though I do not speak the tongue. It is obvious that you have been given an onerous task. Please do not take on such a duty for me."
"You misunderstand my heart my Lord." He returned. "I am happy to do these things. It is just that I know of Suran manners and I fear my friend's master does not, and particularly to a noble like yourself."
At this I burst into laughter. "He is a sight more hospitable than any Latiian I can tell you. It is of no matter. I am in your country now and must fit to your ways. Not the other way around. And further more I am no lord. Whatever made you think I was?"
Dornkas was stunned. Almost breathless he asked. "You..you have been to Latii and come out alive? How did you get out?.. How did you get in ?!! By the waters of Nul! There's a war on! The Latiins are killing everything that moves near their territory. The Nul army has doubled in size for fear of them and you calmly say their hospitality's poor! Electors beard! You must be the warlord of Sur. Either that or an incredible jester!"
"Well." Said I again, having patiently waited for the monologue to cease. "I am neither. Just a humble neut like yourself who could do with a wash and a meal so lead on Dornkas!"
Dumbfounded and disbelieving he led out of the house. We stopped two houses up the street for Dornkas to explain to his master the task he had been given. This dwelling, no less humble than that I had just been in, unfortunately did not reveal its innards to me as the master was in the garden area. The scurrilous look I was given was indication that either Dornkas believed me, or at least told his master of my origins. Nonetheless he was given leave to assist me and we retraced my earlier journey with the crewman back to the
waterfront where it took no time at all to acquire lodging.
It was Dornkas' opinion that he would find it easier to seek my passage by himself, and recommended my making myself comfortable at the hostelry. This encompassed little difficulty as I had already been through the motions the previous night and was very quickly settled into a building very much like the previous inn.
I even wondered if the inns were built to a pattern, or even owned by the same people. An intriguing idea, to own property in more than one place. I was not sure it could be legal if one was not regal. But then this was Nul, and they might have differing dictates.
Dornkas returned some time later with the news that nothing was going downstream on the morrow but I had a tentative passage the following day, which he would confirm later. I offered him the hospitality of the house, which he politely but firmly declined, stating that he had unfinished duties still to perform. My apologies again for wasting so much of his time and energy fell on deaf ears and so I allowed him to make his exit, leaving me alone in the room with so much space for one person to take up. So wasteful. So uncommunal. So strange.
I pondered setting off on foot at daylight in order to cause less disturbance, and then rejected the thought as the travelling by boat was much quicker and the day would not be wasted if I toured the town examining the granaries and observing the populace. They were not the same as us, but if you dig a little who knows what secrets might be uncovered.
I was wakened by the slowly rising hubbub outside, a familiar noise to any town dweller, particularly those who live near market places or road junctions. Following my ablutions and a hearty breakfast I set out to explore, making mental notes of prominent buildings in order that I might find my way back to the inn. I had left my bag and sack in the care of the innkeeper and so was unencumbered for the first time in a month or more. It was odd, for I had become so used to them it felt like something was missing all the time, leaving me with an unbalanced sensation.
I sauntered this way and that, stood in doorways and alleyways. Walked every toe of the town markets and every foot of dock, observing everything. Smiling bowing and waving at those who looked back sideways, suspicion in their eyes at a foreigner.
They were the minority, most just carried on with their lives as if I were not there. Oh, a number looked at me noticing my difference, but saw no malice and either nodded acknowledgement and went back to their business or smiled and waved back. Particularly the young did that, perhaps because my shorter stature appealed more to them.
I saw my boatmen and offered them my assistance in loading. They seemed genuinely pleased to see me and acceded to my offer, but all appeared confused when the boat master came to the conclusion after a sign language conversation, that I wanted no payment. Nonetheless, shrugs and what I took to be idiot signs an apart, I was accepted.
Not only could I see now what went where, I could feel its weight and appreciate the boatman's skill in loading. Moreover, I found out at close quarters what was going upriver as opposed to what was coming down.
Going up: Ironwork, specialist pottery and clothing, delicacies and trinkets, bolts of cloth and glass panes. Going down: Grain, hides, fleeces, something in barrels (I know not what) and odd articles of craftwork. The interplay was intriguing as all the boats from upriver were completely unloaded here and reloaded with goods to go back up. The goods in all cases went into or came from warehouses on the lakefront.
All understandable so far, but other boats were loaded with some of the upriver goods and went down river. This bemused me. Why, if trade was going further down river did not the same boats take it onward, and why was there no passage for me?
Boats were leaving the docks all day at regular intervals, and I resolved to broach the matter with Dornkas when I saw him later in the day. But it was part answered later on anyway as I noticed a boat which had left earlier to go downstream returning in the early evening. It had not gone far quite obviously but still the question gnawed at me.
Again I digress. On completion of loading, a lot less than came out yesterday, I took the crew to lunch at a nearby inn. The boatman, at first was unhappy obviously wanting to be away, but acceded and even enjoyed himself during the repast. He did wag a finger at two crewmen for taking ale with the meal, but put this aside and beamed with delight when I paid for it all.
It had all been worth it. I waved them off from the quay, and the good spirit engendered eased my presence among the other dockworkers. I knew now roughly what Nula ate, drank, did for work, made and sold, even how much tax they paid and to whom, as I had seen the inspectors at work. All I needed now was a true population ratio as comparison to my estimates. I had a good guess, but the rules on who did what were not the same here and I could not be sure.
A chance to answer this was presented on my return to the hostelry, where a message had been left by Dornkas. He would see me there at dusk with information for my passage. Dusk was not far off, and so I did not have long to wait.
Upon his arrival I manoeuvred him into a corner, (handy things to have after all) and indulged in conversation, keeping him there longer than his intention had been. Dreadfully impolite I know, but I was not sure that I would meet another Surian speaker the further I went into foreign territory. The answers I cajoled out of him could not have been solicited with the barebones Nulspeak I had acquired so far.
I had to pose questions or statements and then ask them backwards, slipping them sideways into the conversation in order not to reveal my interest and yet gain information. Which was that there was no awareness of imbalance in the Nula population, but on reflection it seemed there were fewer neuts about these days, certainly among the young. Entirely the opposite to us! That finalised it in my mind. It was nothing to do with Surian grain, as Nula grain was identical.
I also learned about the boats. I would have found out tomorrow anyway on my departure, that goods going down were not the same or in the same quantities as goods going up. The boats downstream were much larger, and because of a waterfall neither boat could actually reach each other. It was also dangerous for the heavily laden upstream boats to venture into the strong current near the falls. As there was no suitable ground for warehousing near the falls, whenever a barge (as the larger boats were called) came up, it was unloaded and the goods carried above the fall to Bayom boats for transport to Bayom itself. Goods to go down made the opposite journey.
Dornkas at last made excuses and left, after explaining where I should go and whom I should seek for passage. He advised me that he would accompany me to the dock if he could, but gave me a written note of introduction in case he were delayed for any reason. I looked at it and was intrigued at the similarities in the letters and even some of the words to Surian. Dornkas had looked at me askance as I did this, as if he thought I was bluffing, that I could not read. In truth it would not be an irrational supposition. It was written in a foreign language and most neuts cannot read anyway. Even a proportion of males cannot, although most females can. He jibed me into attempting to read it out aloud. This I did, stumbling on pronunciation and some of the letters. I asked him what they were and he did not know. He could not read either.
I believe that this was another source of embarrassment, for the following day, when Dornkas came, he was definitely subservient and uncommunicative. I was steered quickly to a local boatman, a price was haggled and I was bid goodbye in a fashion that stated relief at my going. The change in attitude puzzled me somewhat but I put it to the back of my mind as I began another leg of my journey.
I considered it still relevant to continue as there remained a requirement for better crops, and even though I had mentally eliminated the grain as a source of the problem, I had no Solution or reason for it and considered any effort worthwhile that might throw light on the situation.
Stepping out of the boat above the waterfall I realised the truth of Dornkas' words on the danger of the current. But to these fellows it was an everyday occurrence, and not a hair was turned by the crew in transporting myself and a boatload of others, who transpired to be the labourers used for carrying the goods up the falls. These falls were not particularly high nor the trek down them arduous, sufficient though to prevent aqueous communication.
The barges below the fall were easily double the size of the boats above and furthermore had two shafts sticking up out of them, which braced by ropes supported a cloth sheet. This sheet would catch the wind when in the right direction and assist in the propulsion of the barge. A clever idea, but it still needed rowers as the wind could not always be in the right direction.
It transpired that for the next two days that it took to reach the town of Wees, the wind was rarely in the right direction for the barge. It plainly came in useful for barges travelling in the opposite direction however, as we saw a number of them with their sheets billowing, making good headway against the flow of the river.
For the journey I was left alone and almost at my own devices, save that a crewmember came to me at regular intervals with drinks and foodstuffs. I was free to move about, not that there was anywhere to go or much to look at. The countryside became very much unchanging save that the further we went the lusher and more cultivated it became. At dusk the barge was brought to a halt and anchored to the bank, the crew disembarked, prepared a hot meal over a fire and encamped for the night. Effectively in the middle of nowhere... and yet a short way upstream had been habitation, and I was sure not far downstream. Odd, I thought, but mine not to reason why. I did note that a guard was left on board, and this changed periodically through the night. Perhaps all Nula were not so trustworthy after all.
And so to Wees. Far quicker than I could have made it on foot. Wees was not notable so much for its size or architecture as for it being a place of the taxman. You do not have to speak a language to understand that is what they are.
Every barge, travelling both up and down river stopped there. An inspector would board, tally up the cargo, charge the due and then issue an approval warrant for the barge, allowing it to continue.
I am afraid my presence caused a degree of consternation. There were passengers on other barges but none of them foreigners, and it appeared that the inspector was none too happy with me. In fact, when the barge master could not adequately answer his queries and he turned to me he became quite hot under the collar and began shouting when I did not understand and reply to him. When he poked me that was as far as it was going to go. My club came up and he got the message. Backing off from me I could see his anger had turned to silent rage, and I quietly cursed. It was obvious that the barge crew did not like this turn of events and would probably now be in trouble. This could jeopardise my onward travel.
"Please." I thought. "Do not tell me I have to fight my way out of this and from this country as well."
This was when I thought of Dornkas' note. It was not a warrant, but the nearest thing I had, and if this fellow could not read then it might just let me off the hook, so I produced it. He could read, but at least it gave some sort of explanation for the barge master. The inspector looked at the note, looked at me, then re read it. I do not know exactlywhat it said but Slessigs signature on the bottom calmed him down considerably. Even to the extent of there and then issuing the barge master with the necessary transit authorities.
Thus, we moved off and prior to barges that had arrived before us. This did not seem too happy a circumstance to the other barge captains, but brought a grin to the face of mine, and a courteous little bow in my direction. It was only a short way further on that we pulled into the bank again for the night. Once again I was intrigued by their not halting at a town or village but I had no complaints. I ate well enough and slept soundly in my pack, warmer and more comfortable I suspect than the barge crew.
And so next day into Haanbeg. As the dwellings appear one by one, then a cluster and ever decreasing gaps and ever increasing numbers until they occupied both banks of the river in a vast urban sprawl as far as the eye could see in any direction. The barge was docked at a busy pier and the barge master saw me off of his vessel and bade me farewell. It was quite obvious that this was as far as I would go with this barge so off I went.
I suspected that the production of another coin would have found me further passage though perhaps on a different vessel but I was not sure I wanted to go any further by river. It was speedy, but I saw nothing new in it and I did not know where I wanted to go, so why rush nowhere?
Additionally, I had actually gained good value so far in Nul (as far as I could tell). I had only paid out two coins for my travels and precious few others for my keep, but having observed the Nula in their transactions I considered that if my coinage could be broken into smaller values, I could get by even more economically. This might prove difficult however, for it seemed that in Nul it was one payment for one job with no fiscal returns no matter the size of the payment. If they could give value for money, all very well. If they could not, well that was your loss.
I had brought only good quality coinage, for ease of carriage. In retrospect this was to some measure a folly, for I, no we had expected there to be moneychangers as there were in Sur. In reality this was an arrogance, to think that our practices were taken up in other lands. I had been lucky so far in that my Valev coins had been accepted at all. I considered though that there must be a way of breaking down sums of money for there were a number of differing coins in circulation and anyway, merchants could not carry around enough small coins to pay for a barge full of goods or its portage.
Searching out the coin I thought to be of least worth I set about finding a place to sleep for time was getting short in the day for exploration. I did not have to go far from the riverfront before the hostelries and inns became less seedy than some sections by the river itself, and yet not too grand. I short, a welcoming blend of homeliness Nul style. Picking one, I entered and made voice and sign enquiries as to accommodations. The conversation went so:
I signed for me to sleep here?
The proprietor eyed me up and down and held out his hand.
I tapped my purse.
I signed for me to inspect the accommodations and he showed me round. I approved a room and asked how much.
He signed 'how many sleeps?'
I showed him the coin and asked the question again.
He indicated fifteen sleeps and I questioned 'eating and sleeping?' His answer in the affirmative clinched the deal and so I handed over the coin with a smile and my best Nulthanks.
I partook of the hospitality of the house for that evening and retired to my (temporary) room. Next morning dawned overcast, but nevertheless after breakfasting I set out to explore, and through out the day wandered the vast maze of streets. With their houses, shops, businesses, taverns, markets and meeting places.
This town had nothing on Bayom for architecture, but what it lacked in quality was more that compensated by quantity. The leaden skies did nothing to deaden the bustle, which increased in pace and volume as the day wore on, not even abated by the odd shower until darkness approached. By which time I had wandered a hundred markets, browsed half a hundred shops, nosed into business premises and warehouses, seen and smelt every kind of food imaginable (and some of it beyond the imagination) intrigued at works of art and trinkets, admired well designed and made weapons and artefacts and poo poohed those not so. Contemplated new boots and a shirt, (although I would have to purchase those made for Nula youths on account of my size) located carpenters, smithies, bake houses, skin workers, laundries and bathrooms, and more importantly, moneychangers.
I had been almost ready to give up the prospect of finding one when, near a market I noted an alley down which people would go for only a short time, then reappear. My first thought was that therein lay a latrine and it was only when looking for one I ventured down the alley to find that it housed a small building with a single access route guarded by quite fearsome specimens of Nulan strong armed guards.
Within the inner sanctum, I did not have long to observe the goings on before one of the fellows approached me in a very hostile manner and I felt impelled to leave or initiate an exchange. As I felt I could have been prey to extreme deceit and been none the wiser I made an exit. On reflection, I had seen a number of these alleys but had not made a connection in this manner.
Now, I did need a latrine and had no idea where to look. In the middle of the market two what must have been miscreants, were tied to a post and stood next to them was a member of the militia, or at least the local equivalent. So I asked him. This individual growled a few words and pointed. I was not sure if it were a direction or instructions to go away ungraciously. I went anyway and down another alley. This one turned out to be the sought after latrine, but before entering the alley it looked no different from that used by the moneychanger.
So how did one tell which was which? I did not know (and never did find out) but can only assume that the local people are able to differentiate. Lacking this ability I resolved to next day wait until someone of standing went down an alley, follow them, observe the proceedings and act on the information gained. Having selected an individual, at worst I would follow them to the toilet once!
It took a while of hanging about but I did better than a rich Nula, chancing upon a small group I saw the merchant in it negotiating with a trader and passing a bright coin surreptitiously to a retainer. The retainer immediately left. I followed. It took no real intelligence to figure out where the retainer was headed. Straight to the changer.
Watching carefully the protocol involved and exchange rate I took my place and did my best to emulate them. The exchange that followed met my satisfaction. I was not taken advantage of that I could tell and was treated in a very even manner. I had unstiched a gold coin from my belt earlier and now produced it from my purse. The banker looked at it a little distrusting as I handed it over but on examination and weighing raised an eyebrow and nodded in approval.
He asked me a question, to which in pidgin Nulspeak I explained that I did not speak Nulish as I was from a different country. At this he counted out a number of different coins and offered them to me. I looked deep into his eyes and saw honesty, so I took them then handed one back as a token of good will with my thanks.
He looked pointedly at another Nula stood near him, whom I had taken to be another guard but now realised was an inspector to see fair play and no doubt assess and collect taxes. The inspector nodded and the banker smiled and pocketed my gift. As I was leaving, the banker said questioningly. "Swezan? Or Suran?"
"Neither." I replied over my shoulder. "Valever." He shook his head and shrugged, the gold coin his hand.
I left to resume my wanderings. My first destination being a bathhouse, where I could get myself really clean again and have my clothes washed into the bargain whilst I relaxed in the hot water and massage rooms. I emerged from them feeling a new person. Content and at ease, I was ready to resume my quest.
But where to look next? First, I decided, I must get word to Valev if possible. This was an organised society and therefore there must be a means of sending documents as with the Surian couriers. This did not take long to find, as I figured there were two ways of doing it. Either go to the edge of town and wait by a highway until travellers came by, or go to the authorities and ask.
I chose a third option which was to purchase writing goods, take them back to my lodgings and write a missive to Pratak, the Iktna High Chief saying where I had been and what I had done (in a shortened version of course), and that I intended continuing the task set me as it was incomplete. I then addressed the letter and showed it to the hostel proprietor indicating my purpose in my still pidgin, but improving Nulish.
I was directed to the central market and a large building close by it where was housed the administrative bodies of the town. Knowing the right rooms to attend, it was quite easy to have my letter taken for carriage. But as my writing was in Suran (see, I've even started to talk like them! Sorry, Surian) I had to explain the destination and a clerk wrote that in Nulan, which when you can compare it the connection between the two languages can be clearly seen... And it's not hard to conclude that either one has copied the other or the two races have the same roots.
It was after a period of three days or so of wandering the town that I began to notice the odd look here and there, and a day or so later that looking back from one of these looks I noticed that the same Nula was behind me as had been a subspan earlier in a different part of the town. Keeping a careful eye I made a few diversions and halted in a shop to ostensibly browse for a while. As I came out he was there. Across the street chatting, and as I moved off so did he.
I was being followed! But why? I had done nothing wrong that I knew of! It would be difficult to give him the slip but I decided to try if only to see if he knew where I was lodging and how intent he was in my pursuit.
But how to do it? I must have somewhere to hide as I could not hide in people. Unless, I thought, it were a very large crowd perhaps, so the markets were my best chance. I might be given away there, but my lesser height, instead of marking me out might hide me from sight.
As the streets got busier he closed in on me. I had to create room for manoeuvre and hit upon the idea of deliberately closing in. Then he would have to show himself for what he was, or just keep going.
"Let us find out." I thought. So rounding a corner I turned about and went back the way I had come, almost bumping into him. A look of shock crossed his face but he kept going around the corner.
So, if he thought that I did not know his game, he would not come back around the corner for a moment or two in order not to risk arousing my suspicions. I had been sauntering, but quickened my pace now to a fast walk, rounding the next corner as fast as possible without being too abnormal. This was a short street and suited my purpose very nicely.
Stopping in a little trinket shop and moving to the back of it I browsed, waiting for the Nula follower to pass. And surely he did, looking neither right nor left in his hurry to catch up. I gave him a moment then retraced my steps round both corners and on into the market throng.
He had seen me leave the shop but was far enough off to make it nigh impossible for him to catch me before I reached the crowd. Once hidden from view I had to make use of the stalls to change direction and could not be seen to do so by him. I believe I achieved this because I exercised caution and patience to make sure I was clear. There could be no doubt now that he knew I was aware of him but when I made my way to my lodgings I saw neither this individual nor any other identifiably following me.
That evening I gained an idea of why I had been receiving the odd looks from the citizens. The news had reached here of the Surian / Latiian war developments, in particular the Surian invasion and its success. The landlord was happy to have someone under his roof who was from a land which was giving the Latii what for, but some of his tenants were uneasy at the power of Sur. Their thoughts were on the lines that if Sur could now trounce Latii, would attention be turned to their less powerful neighbour, and an invasion of Nul be next?
I told them that I thought it highly unlikely as there was no good reason for it, whereas there had been for the invasion of Latii. But I do not think I convinced them. As I have said before, there is no love lost between the two lands.
The next morning brought an interesting development for as I left my lodging, waiting over the way was the same Nula as yesterday. In a different coat and pretending not to look my way, but the self same one. This told me that I had been followed before for him to know this much. But to what avail was I still observed? What did he hope to learn that could not be directly asked?
Well I would not assist him, whoever he was. Instead I would take the opportunity to have some fun if that were possible. I pursued a number of ploys and ruses that I had thought up overnight to shake off this individual, but he was a good deal more resilient today and even when I had lost him he would reappear shortly afterward. The second time this happened I suspected an accomplice and began to look for one. It did not take long, but I did not find one. I found three.
This was getting serious. I was worried now. "Time to get out of Haanbeg." I told myself, "Probably time to get out of Nul."
Try as I may, I could not dodge all four of them and my efforts, although intended to look like harmless wanderings, must have by now been obvious for what they were. Once they know that I know, following becomes pointless, but what then? Logically they must take action.
I had not carried any weapons until now, but returning to my lodgings picked up my small knife and the Latiian stabbing tool, which I stuck in my belt. Heavy and cumbersome it certainly was, but there was no doubt it was a formidable tool and in the heat of combat had unthinkingly become a viable weapon in my hands. It would however be unmistakably a weapon and in my belt visible to the world. To attempt its concealment I donned the Surian topcoat that had been in my bag since drying it out from the dunking in the Survov. Feeling a little better I resumed my wanderings.
I had hoped to acquire enough Nulish to visit their libraries or universities, but this would not now be so. Instead I strolled by the wharves. This was as good a place of learning as I was going to get in Haanbeg. Exchanging pleasantries with the workers and merchants there, I surreptitiously noted each boat and dinghy. I would have to cross this river and if it were to be done without the knowledge of any watchers it would have to be done at night... and I had no intention of fetching up on the far bank wet through again.
Besides, it would be especially suspicious to the inhabitants of Faalbeg which lay there, should a short wet stranger be seen in their streets. At the right time I might just be mistaken for a youth returning from an illicit liaison, and so my thoughts ran in that direction.
To further my deception, I gave up my attempts at evasion, hoping to lull my watchers into thinking that I knew there was no way I could escape them. I did not however go so far as to acknowledge them as that may have been a compromising move and thus forcing them into precipitate action. I had no desire to be attacked and robbed or arrested and detained so from then on I behaved in a very normal fashion, (normal for Nul that is) and retired early.
What the watchers could not know is that I then collected my things together (not much really) ready for a midnight departure. I rested as best I could and tried to avoid falling asleep as I might miss the right chance, then in the dead of night I crept out of my room, down the stairs and out of the back door. As quietly and watchfully as I was able, I crossed the yard and climbed over the fence, thereby entering another yard, which I had earlier espied had a side entrance onto a separate street.
Keeping to the shadows and moving as quickly as caution would allow, I began to make my way to the waterfront. I had not gone far when I was forced to jump quickly into a dark corner to avoid one of the Sheriff's patrols.
I wondered what kind of trouble this town had that a night patrol had to be five persons strong. Then as they passed a guttering torch they were thrown into relief and I recognised one of the patrol to be my first watcher! By the throne! Were they coming for me?! As soon as they had passed I threw caution to the wind and went hell for leather down to the quays.
There was no watchman that I could see and so I unceremoniously dumped my kit in a small dinghy, cast off and leapt in myself. Then pulling as quietly as I could I made my way across the Nulflas. I was nearly across and a way downstream when torches appeared on the quays near where I had left. There was no shouting, but I could see they were searching for signs of my presence or passing. My escape had indeed been narrow.
Climbing out of the dinghy onto the Faalbeg shore, I considered pushing the boat out so it would float downstream and thereby delay its recovery and the deduction of its use. Thus I might perhaps put my pursuers off of the scent, but I reconsidered this. It was possible that they would not cross the river looking for me, but unlikely when in the morning the boat was discovered as missing. When that happened it would not take long to find my trail. Furthermore, it would count against me if caught by the authorities, that I had so wantonly disposed of another's property.
I had been thus far in the main well treated by the people of Haanbeg and Nul and I was considerate that the owner of the boat would have enough problems as it were without the complete loss of his boat, and so I moored it and tied it securely to a post. It was as well I did, for out of the dark loomed a watch keeper.
My heart thudded, but his only words were to question if all was well. I replied openly and as with a happy disposition that all was indeed fine, then bade him goodnight. Another narrow escape! Had I kicked the boat free, the watch keeper would certainly have seen that as being wrong and I could have found myself having to fight my way past. I had no doubts as to who would have been the victor for I had in my possession a knife, the Latii stabber, a club, my bow (with three new strings) and seven arrows that I had taken the opportunity of flighting properly and a pocket of heads. All in all a formidable armoury, but the fight itself would have hastened my pursuit. What is more, it would have certified my criminality.
As it was I could not even properly be accused of theft, for I had left a coin as token payment on the post that the dinghy had been tied to in Haanbeg, and another in the boat itself in case the first was not found. Thus, though I had taken the boat without consent, it was not theft.
The darker streets of Faalbeg hid me effectively, but like Haanbeg it was a huge town, though I got the impression that it was not quite so. Avoiding the sparse town patrols (here only single persons) I eventually made open country just as dawn was coming up.
Later on I would need to find somewhere to hole up for a nap, and to get some food as there had been no opportunity to acquire provisions without alerting the watchers to my intentions.
There was no reason why I could not eat at an In, but I wanted to leave as little indication of my passing as possible, and have as few eyes to see me and therefore tongues to wag to my pursuers should they come this way. Their net would have to be spread further and wider then, and tie up more enquiries and time before finding my path. With luck I would be clean away by that time.
What I was wanted for I was still not sure and though curious, the matter of the watching had been so sinister that I had little doubt that its motive and resultant would run in a similar vein. I also had no doubts that they had indeed come for me in the dead of night and I had only got away this far by luck.
I kept going until people started to appear from the houses I passed, more and more of which were in the four wall form, and then I chose a small stand of trees to rest in, settling into my unrolled pack like an old friend and as if I had never rested elsewhere.
I had not rested for long, but it was enough to refresh my limbs and my appetite. As I walked onward I could see a large road out to my left, but a way off. Once I was well clear it might be quicker to use that rather than the paths and tracks I was now following. But initially at least it would be more risky as I would be bound to be seen and that would give away my direction of travel.
I kept going as fast as I was able, but the tracks tended to meander and to go off to dwellings and far fields. Not the way I wanted to go at all. So then I would have to cross cultivated land or pasture containing strange domesticated beasts, and this would slow me up. There was very little land not turned to use in some way. Just the occasional wood or coppice and the rarer piece of heath land.
Sown crops were in abundance and at each field of new grain I took a sample. When I think back on it this had been a blessing in disguise. Some of these I had seen on the quays at Haanbeg but had been unable to obtain samples. I had seen how they were used and had tasted the results in different breads, cakes, puddings and pies, but even then I had not seen them all. For those whose Nulish names I did not know I amused myself by making up Surian ones.
As darkness approached, my bag had become quite full with all my bits and pieces the ears of grain and the remains of a small animal the Nulans call a Gartak, which I had shot. It had taken two arrows unfortunately, and I felt I must be losing my touch for as expected it bolted as I loosed, but in the opposite direction to that I had anticipated. The second arrow had done the trick for I could put 'lead' on the arrow once the Gartak was moving.
Selecting one of the small woods ( I have a great liking for trees. Now this may seem strange when one considers that I spent my youth where there are precious few, or perhaps that is the reason) I settled in and made a fire to cook the meat. This fire, unlike the last one which had been in Latii was carefully guarded and moreover the smoke would be dissipated by the trees and approaching darkness. All in all I had a veritable feast and settled in to a very comfortable nights sleep.
Dawn came with a nip in the air, a reminder even here that it was getting colder and the autumn season was near its close. I thought then of the need for the Surian males to be home for the breeding season, and of how in Hivalev there may already be the first snows. My, but it was different here. They had not even got the harvest in yet, though looking at the fields of grain they were due, if not overdue. And I will be taken for Wolf bait if my thoughts had not been read, for emerging from the wood, everywhere to be seen the fields were full of people reaping and gathering.
There was no way I could avoid being seen now and it would be definitely to my advantage to use the main road. And so that is where I went. Progress was much improved and I felt secure enough to have a late luncheon in a medium sized town, the name of which eluded me, but is unimportant anyway.
What is relevant is that these people had some interesting ideas on transportation. Instead of carrying everything on back or shoulders they had sleds with rotating runners that they dragged around. Some were single person pull devices and others worked by a team of three or four fellows, who by this means could move far more than five, even ten individuals could hope to, albeit more slowly. As an extra surprise, there was a commotion suddenly developing as I ate, which conditioned such excitement that I just had to see its cause.
Into town came a small one of these things I learned were called carts. It had three 'wheels' (rotating runners) and was towed by a team of animals looking like a cross between Buika and Wolves. It was all controlled by a Nulan perched right at the back with a long whip and ropes leading to the animals. Now crazy this contraption may sound, but move it certainly did, and how!! It moved easily twice as fast as a running Latiian at full stretch.
This device came to a noisy and dust raising stop in front of a prominent building where a liveried Nulan was waiting. One sack was taken out from the cart and another placed in it, and then it was off, just like that! Gone in two blinks, a plume of dust behind it. That was very impressive, thought I. But what was it all about?
It came upon me of a sudden. Mail!! By the throne! That thing could have come from Faalbeg that morning. It probably did! Even with a whole day in which to discover my intended path the watchers could easily get me now by sending ahead for town sheriffs to watch out for, and arrest me on sight! I had considered myself well ahead of any runner, and now I was made to feel foolish. But how could I have expected anything of this ilk? There had been no sign nor clue in Haanbeg. Perhaps these things did not run further than Faalbeg. But why? Perhaps it was a new idea. The public reaction certainly indicated it was a novelty. But what should I do now?
The first and most obvious thing was to get out of town as quickly as reasonably possible, stopping only to acquire a few provisions, some cheese, bread and herbs for cooking later on. I wanted to be gone before the sheriff did his rounds looking for me. With a little luck the right questions would not be asked in the right places and if I was not around, perhaps memories would not be jogged. Perhaps even, I had another day of grace, with the Haanbeg watchers not finding where I had gone yet.
It was entirely conceivable that they had concentrated their search towards Sur, thinking I was headed home. I did not hold out a lot of hope in that direction and thus strode out in the direction of sunup. I had heard stories that another land lay that way. I did not know if it was true or how far I must go, but resolved to go for it regardless.
As the day wore to its close I caught up with a band of merchants and their retinue, and decided that I would be less conspicuous if I was, or appeared to be, in a party. So I just tagged along with them, chatting to the porters and cartiers alike. It did not take long to be accepted and the occasional hand to push a cart up a steeper bit here, or to adjust a strap there served to cement the companionship of the road.
By this time of course, my Nulish had improved to the point where I could hold limited conversations. I asked where they had come from and where they were going and answered their similarly phrased questions in an acceptable fashion.
They had come from Faalbeg with salts and metalwork in the carts with the porters carrying woven cloths and the like. All the products going to specific buyers in Beda, a town in the country of Enar.
It transpired that they regularly undertook this journey, and the border was only three days away! At the pace they were travelling I could have made the distance in two days, maybe a little less, but in line with my intention to pass as unnoticed as possible I resolved to stay with them.
There were questions enough at the night stop anyway, for one of the merchants did the rounds of the portage staff to see that they were all there all was in order for the next day. Thus, he came across me and immediately barraged me with questions as to my presence among his workers. My assurances that I was just a traveller who preferred company and that I was taking nothing from his entourage mollified him somewhat, and he trudged off again on his rounds.
Next morning he came back however, asking where I had come from. This I told him honestly.
"From Valev of course, out of Bayom via Haanbeg."
Naturally, he had never heard of Valev, but a curious comment was made in that he had thought I was from Swezz.
Now I had never heard of that place, and as to verify that I had heard him correctly asked "Where?"
Misinterpreting my words the merchant waved away noncommittally into the distance saying, "Oh, that way. Far away I think. I've never been there myself, but there are sometimes some of them in Beda and they look a bit like you."
I wondered if this was a reference to Old Pskova or another land altogether. I would have to find this out. But first I had to extricate myself from Nul.
This took the full three days, and the temptation was very strong all the way just to break and go full pelt for the border. Especially as each day, once in each direction we were passed by the mail cart that would fairly hurtle past us carrying I imagined, a full description of me and my arrest warrant.
To my relief, this baggage train camped overnights out of towns. The porters said it was because the merchants were too skinflint to pay for accommodations. Their superiors confided that it was to prevent drinking. Both reasons were valid. I did not care. The countryside suited me better.
The last night in Nul, the merchants camped their retinue close to a largish river that marked the border across which plied a raft, guided by a rope stretched over the water between two keeps. A second rope ran to each bank for the people on the sides to pull the raft one way or the other. I imagined stealing the raft, but saw that even if I had no one to pull me from the far side and used instead the guide rope to pull myself across I could easily be pulled back. Unless that was, I cut the ropes!
The temptation overcame me, for among other things I had discovered in Nul was that everyone who travels must have an authorising document or transit tag referring to such. Naturally, I had neither of these and how I had got away for so long without them I could not fathom. It was beyond me to think how formalities at the border could be overcome in these circumstances. I suspected that the merchant would have troubles enough as it was without the likes of me among his people. So, in the dead of night I carefully and quietly packed up and sneaked off into the darkness.
Cloud cover was thin and patchy, allowing me to see clearly by starlight as I approached the Nulan keep. I moved carefully and quietly, afraid of being seen by the guard atop the wall but he must have been half asleep and gave no sign of seeing me creep round the wall’s end up to the guide rope securing posts .
In cover of the posts I used the Latiian stabbing tool to separate the rope strands, then with my little knife cut them one by one. The Nula pull rope first, for that was the most important, then the guide rope. I cut that so that when I loosed the raft, the downstream current would carry me in an arc to the other side and away from the watchtower on the far bank. With luck, all this would happen in virtual silence as well.
It took a while to cut the ropes, and I could have not have done it so quickly or quietly without being able to separate the strands for it was good quality rope. As it was I had to stop from time to time and lay completely still when the guard roused himself to half stupefied pace the wall to right above me before returning again to his warm corner.
Eventually I was done. I waited until I was sure the sentry was fully settled before cutting the last strand and pushing off the raft. I had to haul on the guide rope for a bit to ensure the raft did not ground itself, but then the current took its grip. The raft was heavy, and it took all my strength to hold onto the rope and loop its end over an upright pole to secure it. If I had not done that the raft would have come off the rope and just floated off down river, more than likely to return to the same bank it had left. Fortunately I managed to hold on and it did not.
The actual crossing did not take long, but like my previous major river excursion was fraught with the fear of discovery. I lay down on the raft to be less conspicuous if the craft itself was spotted, and looked first at one tower then the other, expecting at any time for a cry of warning to come. But it did not.
I can only assume that the Nula guard, seeing the pull rope still coiled ( if he saw anything, or even looked) would not conceive that the raft was not attached and on his bank in the gloom. As to the Enaran sentry, if there was one, it would be natural to assume that no one pulling on the Enar rope also meant that the raft was on the Nula bank. Furthermore, if either looked at the river, the raft would not be on its normal track and again they may not have noticed it.
Whatever, at last the raft grounded and I was able to gain the Enar banks without so much as getting my feet wet. I contemplated freeing the raft to float down river, but rejected the idea as time wasting and unnecessarily destructive. Raft or no raft, there would be no doubt that the lines had been cut. So setting off and giving the small conurbation by the crossing a wide berth I rejoined the road to Beda.
This little adventure had taken less than five subspans and delivered me safely deep into Enaran territory as dawn rose in my face.