I had ventured out of Valev whilst on the expeditions with the university, but had never before entered a foreign country. The expectation and reality did not match. It was a let down to step ashore and find that it was just the same here as it was in Valev. Yes, the people are of the same race and speak the same language, but there is a greater change passing between Lo and Hivalev than between Lovalev, and Ossov in Sur.
There were not even border guards or excise officials. It was not fair. It did not seem like a foreign land. Perhaps it would further on, I thought. After seeking directions, which brought hoots of laughter, I set off toward Rega, on the only sizeable road there was.
I camped under the stars on that warm summer night, tired and happy but with sore feet from the new boots and being unused to walking so much. Oblivious to the problems of Hivalev, I slept heavily but comfortably in my sleeping pack.
For the next four days I passed through a rich countryside of woods and pastures, passing heavy footed and sore through hamlets, villages and small towns. I re-vittled in some of these and found the people friendly and sympathetic, altogether just like Lovalevers in the rural community. In fact, those of them who asked where I came from did not even know that Valev was a different country. Those that had even heard of it thought it was just another province of Sur, but all of them knew of the mountains. Whenever I looked back, there they were, growing smaller with distance but still there. Hidden occasionally by trees or the slope of a hill, but round the bend or clear of the slope there they were again, majestic as ever, my home.
Even from Vus, the first large and portalled town which I entered, the tops were visible. And if you knew where to look, the mountain throne was just able to be made out when the light was right. It was best at dawn when the peaks are lit at the same time as the roofs of Vus. I know this because I was compelled to stay in Vus for two full days. Not for official means or because of its beauties for the town did not really have any, but because of my feet.
I am sorry. I have made it sound like Vus is a dreadful place. This is not so. It is a very pleasant town in its own way, basking in the summers' heat surrounded by rolling fields of grain. The people are most hospitable, but there is nothing there that would jar your memories, or make you tell others "Go to Vus." It does posses an excellent doctor and a good cobbler, between whom I was remade into a passable traveller again. Even after their exalted efforts it took me another four full days to reach the capital, Rega.
A vastly more impressive conurbation than either Vus or Vasny, Rega has paved Streets laid out in an orderly fashion and lined with well constructed dwellings of primarily wooden fabrication outside the walls and of wood and stone within. The most notable being the multi porticoed chamber of elders, the imposing residence of the Champion of Sur and the majestic Castle of the King. There were well laid out public gardens and parks and a general sense of order and well-being.
All of the officials and their retinues were garbed in uniforms of bright hues, each colour depicting a particular department or role. These were the same as I was used to in Valev, excepting that there a sash sufficed, not a whole ensemble. Lodgings were plentiful and cheap, and I easily found some not too far from the university buildings. I paid for them out of the money I had taken from my savings for my work in Iossna. I carried these monies in a purse, and intended to use this when at all possible, regarding the gold sewn into the belt given to me by Iktak as an insurance rather than a working capital.
I had been doing surreptitious head counts at all the populated stopping points on my way to Rega, and had thus far found no deviation in population status, coming to the conclusion that this was also the case in Rega. In addition, it did not take much probing to reveal that there was no intrinsic difference in food preparation methods between Rega, Vasny and Hivalev. This left me with a dilemma. How to research agricultural methods and successes?
I saw it that there were two alternatives. One, to search the markets taking samples and thereby assessing the present state of the stocks, or go direct to the university and search for indicators or perhaps real information in the records as to crop or population change. As normal for me I opted to do both and so I made moves to insinuate myself into the university scene and thereby gain acceptance and eventually access to the libraries. This was not so easy, nor yet so difficult as one might think, for having been to a university before it provided no obstacle to my moving freely and easily among the corridors of learning, but gaining access to the reading rooms without a university pass was much more of a problem. At length however, I achieved this despite the sidelong glances of those who obviously questioned how I could read so well, and yet was not in some administrative department.
In quelling curiosity on that quarter I did not want it aroused as to my purposes. To that end I believe 1 was successful. Perhaps not entirely in halting questions but at least in misdirecting the conclusions by my statements and answers. This did not though mean that I was successful in my quest for despite prolonged searching through all the books, records and documents I could find no evidence, nor even the intimation that similar problems existed or had existed in Sur.
Of a consequence I had to accept that there was no answer to be had in Sur, to either the population or crop problems. What I did find was that there was war fever in Rega. The border conflict which had spasmed since the Pskova road had fallen some sixty years before, and in recent summers flared into fighting proper had now escalated and exploded into a major and protracted war.
The Surian Games of this summer had been used as a thinly disguised means of assembling massed armies for the raising of the siege of Castle Kiisk and the invasion of Latii. The intention being once and for all of destroying the Latiian military ascendancy in the border region.
The usual Surian sweeps which attempted to entrap Latiian raiding parties had rarely proved successful, excepting that they prevented Latiian settlement on Surian Land. But the border area had become depopulated on the Surian side because of the destruction that the years had brought. This was the Latiian way of expansion. Raid and destroy until the ground ahead was cleared, then move in. Well, the ground was clear, except for the fortress of Kiisk.
That is not a Surian sounding name, and yet it was said in the streets of Rega with pride and almost reverence. Often in the same breath as the famed Pom, which had withstood siege for nine long summers, long ago in a different war. For a whole year Sur had been trying to contain Latiian deep raiding and in that had failed to raise the siege of Kiisk.
The one massive blow at the start of this summer had achieved that and carried on into Latii, only to grind to a halt as Sur laid siege on the Latiian town of Jojiisk. It was achieving Surian aims. Raiding had ceased, and more and more Latiians forces were being drawn to destruction on the grindstone of siege. Its disadvantage was that it was having a not too dissimilar effect on the Armies of Sur. What is more the siege was holding. Sur was now learning the lessons that had been taught to Latii at Kiisk. Making a siege and breaking it were two entirely different propositions.
To break the deadlock at Jojiisk, Sur needed more armies, and to this end recruiting parties toured the streets accosting every able bodied male and neut they saw, this with the full support of the Surian populace. I was approached on more than one occasion by a member of the Provosts' retinue enquiring as to which family I belonged and whether I could be freed to supplement the glorious armies of Sur. It took a lot of tact and connivance to avoid being drafted into the conflict there and then. It made me uneasy to realise that it would not be long before like it or not if I stayed here, as I was neut I would be conscripted into the battle zone.
Consequently I decided to extend my journey and to get out of Rega and away from the recruiting parties. For getting into a war was not at all useful to my cause or intent. On the way into Rega there had been no recruiting and I hoped that it would be the same once I cleared the city boundaries again.
The university, and therefore my lodgings lay within the central citadel of Rega, which as a mark of war was shut up at night. My departure would thus have to be in daylight when everyone could see. The Provosts' deputies stood on the road at the edge of town checking everyone. When it came to my turn and they asked where I was going I told them of the only place I knew in that direction. 'Pom.'
Attempting to persuade me to enlist I continued the lie as evasion. I said I was acting as a messenger on a private matter and was not from these parts (Which was the truth).
"No matter," They argued, "My work done I could now join the fight.''
Here, I intimated that I would not resist the call if I could be among my own people. I meant Valevers, they interpreted it as Pommers. To compound the situation their officer even presented me with a letter of introduction to help speed my way to and into the clutches of Pom.
There were no recruiters in the countryside, but in every village and town along the way the population had woken up to the war and I was inexorably guided and hurried on to the great city of Pom.
Now I know from my history lessons that not far from Pom lies the land of Nul. As there had not been a conflict between Sur and Nul for a hundred years I thought this would be my best bet to avoid getting killed and to gain more information. And so to Pom.
Stood on a raised plain, the fortress dominates the land for as far as the eye can see. Its enormous walls and colossal gate stand in the face of time itself. As one approaches, it can be seen as a vast walled citadel, with the old walls standing tallest aside the road. Unlike other walled towns, the road does not pass through Pom, but below its walls. That means the gates can be locked and yet not hinder traffic, but that no one could pass down the road if the inhabitants did not wish it, for a murderous fire may be launched from the omnipresent walls. But the gate. That a moving construction could be that massive defies belief. Stood near, it is like a small mountain, with two mighty towers reaching skywards supported by huge bastions, each tower being topped by a further small tower, and then by a great golden globe.
To see it one would wonder why the Nula even tried to attack the town, for it appears impregnable. Excepting that I know from my history lessons that the gate was built after the great siege of nine summers. But that is perhaps why the Nula have not tried since.
Passing through the gigantic open portal I was stopped and questioned by stern faced guards, dressed as for war. Not as would have been usual, for police work. I was brought to mind that in these times, for these people history was alive. The city would never let them forget its danger and its glory. In reality the foe was far away now, in Orel on the Latiian border but to these people the Nula were and always would be a threat. As a consequence everyone entering or leaving the city had to show a pass or paper of authority.
The only thing I had was that cursed letter. I could have, and perhaps should have thrown it away and written another to take its place. But I had not, and anyway it gained me entry, although how I would make an exit without a uniform I was not sure.
The guards had marked me down, and being neuts were not likely to forget. Funny that, but you come across it all the time. I suppose males and females think you are just another neut, but to a neut guard that is his job, and they always remember you. It is a bit like that with neuts in hostelries as well. They never own the place but once you have been there they remember your name, where you came from, what you like and what you do not. I do not really know how they do it for I am a neut and my memory is like a sieve. Accordingly when I concoct a story for the hostel keepers (as I now did) I have to make it simple and close to the truth or I will fall foul of my own deceits.
I spent the next few days provisioning and watching. Old Pom was a maze. The streets were all narrow and zig-zagged between high walled homes and gardens often running into enclosed courtyards surrounded by castellated walls. Absolutely crazy, killing grounds within a maze within impregnable walls. Anywhere else this would have been a pleasant diversion with shade, perhaps a fountain or pool and some plants with a seat or two. Not here. They were just hot and dry and devoid of cover. Pom takes its status seriously.
There were not many Nula in the city and if any of them were spies, as they were all treated, their reports would be gloomy indeed. Why they bothered to trade at all was beyond me for everything they obtained was at an inflated price and was associated with individual and bureaucratic harassment. Curiously enough I noticed that one thing they were keen to obtain was Hivalever buika pelt. My sleeping pack would easily have been sold for a dozen times what I paid in Iktna. It occurred to me that if the pelts could be transported direct to Nul then Valev could afford all the grain it wanted and more.
Staying around the markets was not a good thing to do though as the Provosts' recruiting parties were more persistent here than in Rega. There was it transpired, an easy option for there were five Pavan regiments. The first always stayed in Pom, and the third never left Pava. Naturally enough conscription was running highest for the other three, but Pavan caution was causing them to bolster the home regiments, just in case. Naturally the more astute neuts were volunteering for the first and third regiments, but no military service save that for Valev would be my choice. The recruiting I had in mind was with the Nula traders as a porter for their goods.
They already had porters to bring their goods to market here, but I considered it likely that I could persuade them to hire another. Me. The trouble was that each of them was constantly followed by one of the Provosts' retinue. Two of them however had interpreters who were not watched as they were Surian. It was one of these, a fellow called Pankov whom I approached one evening with my proposition. At first he was sceptical of my motives but was gradually persuaded that indeed I was a foreign national seeking passage to Nul for genuine reasons. It took some time but eventually Pankov agreed to see what he could do.
We met again one evening after the agreement in a popular tavern where over a mug of ale or two Pankov explained that he had found it remarkably easy to manufacture the requirement and obtain the necessary permit. So easy in fact that he had decided to accompany me and had thus gained two places. His excuse or reason, take it as you will, was that he had been as far as the border before and his curiosity as to how it was on the other side might only have this chance to be assuaged. Furthermore, as a Nula speaker he would be able to act as my guide and confidant for the journey.
I feared that this would complicate matters but agreed as I saw no other immediate option. The train would leave in three days time he revealed, and the permits were in order for that departure only. I must confess that it was a little difficult for me to understand a situation where permits were needed for everything, and people had to carry notes or identification with them when leaving their homes. Most strange and this still in Sur.
It had not been like this even in Rega, and here I had been with neither note nor identification, for by this, time I had destroyed the earlier letter. In order to overcome this handicap I had borrowed the necessary implements and had written my own note of introduction. If I had known the need I could have had a genuine letter from the High Chief of Iktna, but I could hardly go back for that now!
My forged note would not stand much inspection for it had no seal, but it would with a little luck enable me to stop living like a hermit or thief. It was successful in that respect for when presenting it on demand to the Provosts' force of whom most could not read, its officious look alone was enough to appease them. And so I managed to pass the few remaining days waiting to leave in a little more comfort.
At the appointed time and place I met up with Pankov and joined the merchants' party. Was assigned a place in the line and a load to carry, then with little ado the assemblage was off. I half hid my face as we left the city, but I need not have worried. The merchants produced all the documentation and the guards were not the same as on my entry. My heart leapt! We were out!
A short way along the road the merchant came down along the line moving people around, straightening packs and generally tidying the procession, which did not stop. The pace was not fast, but the load settled heavier upon my shoulders as every longpace passed, and the midday halt was much welcomed. I sat and chatted with Pankov, asking how far the border was and whether he had found out our destination and how far away that was.
The border, he informed me, was less than a longpace away and our destination a place by the name of Harmbegg some four days, or about a hundred and twenty longpaces further. That was fine. I could have made it quicker on my own without the load but this was better. We were even being paid for it!
Most of the porters were Nula, and being generally larger in build than Surians were having an easier time of it. I had expected them to be all neuts but curiously enough some were males. I could only account for this in that the males carried the more delicate or valuable loads. The call came and the train picked itself up and resumed the journey, but only as far as the border where the guards were pulling out every Surian from the line.
Each was told in no nonsense terms to lay down his load on a pile and to sit in a group near another guard. One young neut ahead of me lost his nerve and ran but was halted by a cry from the guard. Another guard stood up right in the path of the neut ‑ with an arrow nocked ready. The young neut very wisely gained control of himself and returned dejectedly to the fold.
Pankov’s turn came, and then mine. I tried to tell them that I was not Surian but that just raised laughter and then anger. I could not fight with the load on my shoulders or against such numbers and so bitterly gave in, dumped my pack on the pile and joined the others. A pitiful band of ten neuts were waiting under guard when the column passed over the border. The train was then halted, fourteen Nula put down their packs and came back for ours then once the cargo was all safely in Nul it was redistributed among the remainder of the train and off they went towards Harmbegg.
Those of who had been detained were marched under guard back to Pom. This time the massive portal was not a bastion of civilisation but that of a prison, and the words emblazoned high above. "Here stands Pom, ever a city of Sur" No longer a proud boast but a curse.
Incarcerated just within the walls we were separated from other offenders and shoved into a communal cell. A large thick walled room that had a solid peaked roof and a single air and light opening centrally located, too high and too small for escape. The door was also solid and the only opening in the walls. This was not a place one got out of easily.
The door was opened as evening drew on, but only for our jailers to throw in bread and to leave a bucket of broth with tin mugs hung on its side just inside the door, that was then promptly slammed shut. There was barely time to eat and in his misery the young neut who had run did not, before a small peephole in the door opened and the jailer shouted through that we should finish up and leave the mugs and bucket by the door.
"Any missing," He shouted, "And he would have to come and winkle them out and that could prove painful."
Everyone complied, but I shouted back to wait up. One of us had not eaten yet. The jailers' rely was unrepeatable, then the door whipped open and the bucket vanished. The door slammed again. That was it. Silence. Nothing.
Then the young neut started to weep. Some of the others consoled him and eventually as darkness fell each attempted to sleep on the hard floor. Fortunately, nothing had been taken from us and so everyone had a blanket or pelt to ease the roughness and cold of the stone. Luckier than most I had my sleeping pack which dispelled both.
There was another bucket left in the cell and I felt thankful that no one used for its obvious purpose. It looked remarkably like the bucket our food had been brought in and I wondered if the two ever crossed in their function.
Early next morning we were rudely awaken and herded out (with the bucket as we were advised) to a washroom where we could complete our ablutions. These done we were hustled back to the cell where the morning meal awaited us, and was already going cold. Everyone ate quickly, expecting the bucket to disappear soon but it did not.
Scraped clean, for its contents had been frugal at any rate, its return was to prove the only visit made that day despite a deal of shouting and banging. An unpleasant side effect of the hasty meal was that one fellow could not contain himself and desired to use the garrison latrine as we had that morning. The lack of response forced him to the bucket.
I am afraid the odour of the odure severely affected appetites when the evening meal was brought. Requests to empty the bucket or for information were met with abuse from the jailer, both when bringing and taking the food. The abject apologies of the excreter did not ease the way to sleep or comfort on our second night of captivity.
The following day saw the first 'interrogation'. After ablutions at which the Bucketeer cleaned up his mess and then the morning meal the door suddenly crashed open, two guards dived in, grabbed one of the incumbents and dragged him out with them. He did not come back. Instead the guards came again a while later and took another unfortunate kicking and screaming with them.
The non-reappearance of the first fellow really started tongues wagging in speculation, and it was almost with relief that we received the second neut back when number three went. He was shaken but unhurt, and told us that they had asked his name, family and what he had been doing. The answers had been legitimate and forthcoming for he had been sold by his family to traders and so regularly carried goods to and from Nul, both for the Nula and for his employers. The only thing he could think of as to why he was back in here was that they were checking his story.
Those remaining decided that instead of the guards picking, we would gain a little of the initiative by being ready to go in a sequence of our choosing. One of the others had in his possession a gambledie and by taking turns on this the order was established. Old‑neut, Pankov, Gambledie, Me, The Pavan, Young neut, and finally the Bucketeer.
We heard the guards coming again and Old neut stood up ready. The door opened but there was no number three. The guards were a little surprised but nonetheless took Old neut, who promptly reappeared shortly afterward and at which point Pankov was taken. Old neut’s story was much the same as number two’s and at this revelation everyone except young neut relaxed a little.
When they came for Gambledie and Pankov was not returned, I began to feel just a little nervous, after all our two situations were linked. Young neut began to weep quietly, assuring himself that the guards were killing every other person and that he should surely be killed too. Despite our attempts, we could not refute that and so much to our discomfort he continued to whimper.
Footsteps in the corridor. My turn next. I stand, but my knees shake. Quickly I ask Old neut to look after my pack and bag, saying that I will be back for them shortly. I am not confident of this but saying it gives me hope and might help rally Young neut. Gambledie is thrust in and the guards reach for me.
"Do not!" I cry aggressively, and they hesitate. "I will thank you fellows to show me the way and there I shall go. There is no need for surliness or violence on your part or mine."
Taken aback the guards stand rooted.
"Lead on if you please". Say I, and walk through the door. Then with one guard in front and one behind I went up to the interrogation chamber.
Looking up from his table at our entry, then raising an eyebrow in the direction of the guards the Captain of the guard spoke to me.
Not a question, but a barked command. I paused then spoke.
"Am I so soon convicted and you know not even my name?"
"What the dung!!?" The Captain exploded, rising to his feet. "What the turd do you think you are? How dare you speak to me, to any male like that, you turd wiping neut?!!!"
Again I paused for effect before saying. "Where I come from we were led to believe Surians are as polite as we. I am saddened to find otherwise."
At this the Captains' eyeballs bulged and he went into an apoplectic rage, screaming at the guards to beat me senseless. Unfortunately for him they did not seem too keen to do so. I had almost heard them laughing at the Captains' condition. They did however make a token gesture, but in a confined space they had no room to use their weapons.
Despite my years, the experience of my father’s lessons had not left me, and in no time they were both sat dumfounded against the walls. I was left stood in the middle of the room facing the Captain and holding both short spears. Open mouth, he was fumbling about for a knife which lay among the papers on his table.
Drawing breath I said. "I would be obliged if you let that be."
"These two fine guards may even have their weapons back should you prefer it. What is more, I will even answer your questions and that with pleasure should you find a way to phrase them with the courtesy to which I am accustomed."
Flabbergasted though the Captain was, he recovered quickly and began the process of asking my name, family and what I had been doing, all in a considerably more polite manner. I told him plainly I was Okhta , offspring of Simik of Iktna and Asiavak, once an elder of Valev and now at peace. As such I was a citizen of Valev on the staff of the High Chief of Iktna and detached to the University of Vasny for the purposes of a fact-finding journey to foreign lands.
"What? To Nul?" He interjected.
"Why not?" I replied. "My brief is open. To find out the ways of all people."
Looking me straight in the eye he said. "That is a rather convenient brief for you just now is it not? And I suppose this fellow Pankov is working on the same brief?"
At my reply that Pankov had not been tasked, but at my request was providing advice and assistance, the Captain smiled, informed me that the interview was over and that he would check my credentials.
The return to the cell was without incident, but it was obvious that the guards were wary now and I would have been ill advised to attempt any escape then. When I entered the room, to my relief Pankov was sat there, for all the world as if nothing had happened. It appeared that after his story was heard, they detained him from return in order that no contact should be made between us prior to my questioning.
Comparing stories, I do not believe that we incriminated ourselves, not that as far as I was concerned any criminal act had been undertaken. The Governors of Pom obviously thought differently. Of the original ten detainees only two plus myself had genuinely been attempting to avoid military service. One of these had already gone, leaving Young neut who was in any case too young to be pressed into service. I for one could not even fathom why he had contemplated the matter
There was not long to debate it for the Pavan was soon thrown back and Young neut was taken, not to reappear. Most probably sent home I thought. When the Bucketeer returned the evening meal came as well. It was reduced in quantity to match the reduced numbers of incumbents to the cell.
A further two days passed with nothing other than the firmly established routine occurring. Then on the third day they came for Gambledie, and then the Pavan. Neither reappeared. Down to five we all brooded our fate. In the interminable round of "I am not guilty" confessions, I kept my peace as best I could, being careful not to lay any paths inadvertently for misinterpretation or conjecture,
By the following midday I was left alone in the cell. All the others had been taken, not to return. I was to moulder that day and most of the next before being recalled to the captains' presence. He immediately informed me that all of the others had seen sense and volunteered for military service, and thus he entreated me to do likewise.
At this I repeated that I was a subject of Valev and thus not liable for and could not be pressed into the ranks of a non-Valever army.
"Hah!" He cried. "But why not? For Valev gives fealty to the King!"
"Not so." I replied. "The champion is entreated, not subject."
"Same thing." The Captain replied. "The cause is the same, and you at any rate cannot speak for your Champion or the King. You cannot refuse to assist in the defence of Sur."
I informed him that I could and would, particularly as I knew that the Valev Champion had thus far declined from participating in as punitive an enterprise.
"Let me put it this way then." He said. "I am still checking, and being that Valev is so distant I am not even sure in which direction to send messengers or even if that you are worth the effort. It may take me a season or two to gain any answers. By that time the winter will have closed all military operations for the year. Now you can remain here, we will have to change your cell of course, or you can go with the army and be free to proceed when the campaign closes. I leave the choice to you."
This was plain speak, though concealing malice. I could rot in jail for an undisclosed time or I could go with the Surian army to war.
I really had no choice but still played for room, saying that I could not join a Pavan regiment nor even any Surian one as a soldier, for this may be seen as precedential by both our betters. I could however I stated, see that providing logistical support would not necessarily go against the intents of the Valev Champion, and yet contribute to the Surian situation by freeing another to fight.
Thinking about this for a while, the Captain agreed, adding that he thought me right. I should soonest transfer to a regiment with links closer to my home, but in the meantime I should travel as an ancillary with the 4th detachment of the Pavan 5th regiment. This was leaving for the front in two days time. In the interim month I had to remain in custody as I had been the only one so far to continually object to service and he considered my reliability as suspect. I was therefore consigned back to the cell, and then moved to a different, much smaller incarceration room, the one I presumed the Captain had been referring to.
I was glad of the decision to go for this cell was tiny, and to have spent two or more seasons in it alone may have possibly altered my balance of reason. Two days was enough for me.
The routine was the same as before but I was abluted earlier and fed the evening meal later. If there were other prisoners to cater for I did not see them or hear them. This was indeed solitary confinement, for even on the rare times that the guards appeared hardly two words were spoken. I would dearly have loved to write, or anything. But instead I had to be patient, for I was getting out in good time.
That release was quite sudden, for with no warning or ceremony the door was opened and I was ushered out with the instruction to bring all my kit. I was then handed over to a soldier who escorted me out of the barrack‑cum‑jail complex. By way of narrow streets and alleys he took me to, and then out of the cities main gate. Only one longpace away the detachment was assembling which was about to undertake the journey to Orel and the war.
I was delivered into the hands of an Overseer who immediately appointed me the carrier of a large metal pot and its associated utensils. I was happy to see Pankov there as a porter and Old neut in the capacity of stock herder. They explained that all the others excepting Young neut were in the ranks as soldiers and were only expected to carry their own equipment. For the journey however, the soldiers were issued with rations for twenty days and replacement weapons for troops already fighting.
It was not long before we had been organised and were on our way with the ancillary column ahead of the soldiers. That is the way it would stay all the way to Kiisk. The ancillaries rising first, making the morning meal then packing up and moving off ahead of the troop column. Then at close of day, encamping, foraging usually by purchase from the nearest village or town and preparing the evening meal.
One of the chores during camping that I found I had been especially selected for was the preparation of latrines. This was not so bad. It just meant digging a series of shallow ditches with raised beams alongside them. The unpleasant part was filling them in the next morning. When after three or four days of this I enquired of the Overseer why it was always me who was on this duty where all other jobs had been shared around, I was given very short shrift in unrepeatable language, the net result of which was that special instructions had come from on high to the effect that I should be allocated all the worst and most unpleasant tasks.
I was beginning to think that something on those lines had been propagated but could not have been certain until that point. Put aside that I had the largest pot and what looked like the heaviest load, that I always had to dig and fill the latrines and on occasions I was made to catch erring animals, and it will be found that things were not so bad. The pace was easy, dictated as it was by the herded livestock, but nevertheless the longpaces passed by relentlessly.
The third night stop was on the outskirts of Pav, three days later passing through Povsk, then across the Survov into Orel joining the great Dewan road. Pausing again two nights later outside Kiv it required only another three days before we found ourselves camped outside Kiisk itself. This formidable fortress spanned the main road, and though not as impressive as Pom looked just as invincible.
That had been proven by its standing through siege all the previous year. Remarking on this to Pankov the next day, for the detachment had stayed put to rest before going on to join the regiment at Jojiisk (have you ever heard such a name? Obviously Latiian. -But to say that, Kiisk was called such when it was built to reflect the character of the threat) he replied that it had been close for the Latiians had breached the walls.
"Really ?" Said I and asked him to tell me more.
But that was all he knew. Without the pot to carry and with the latrines dug, I had time on my hands. I spent the day cleaning up and word sparring with Pankov and Old neut. When we learned that the regiment was coming back to rest and acquire the detachment so we would not be moving for another day, I persuaded Old neut to keep an eye out for us and cover as necessary with the Overseer in order that Pankov and I could go and see Kiisk.
Basic duties done, the next morning we set off on the short walk to the fortress. Walking through the fortification revealed that it was built in two parts, one each side of the road. The larger enclosure formed a non concentric shape with the road bending around one apex of a wall joint. The smaller enclosure formed the other side of the road as it followed the main structures' wall. This created a tunnel effect, a valley in which attackers would have no hiding place.
Emerging again on the far side and following the wall round to the left (the larger section) we came across a huge breach in the walls. It appeared that at that point the wall had just collapsed into the ground, and entering there across the rubble it was obvious that this section had been fought over.
Throughout it there broken weapons, burnt timbers and scattered everywhere were the damaged and discarded artefacts of everyday living. There were no bodies. Those had all been cleaned up and I wondered why the rest had not, but there were plenty of dried and weathered blood stains.
The pattern of building was in the same vein but on a smaller scale as the construction of Pom. Here it appeared to have failed in its purpose. I could not see how that failure can not have been extremely costly in life for both assailant and defender.
In my imagination I could see Latiians crowding into blind alleys to be stoned and shot to death, but still coming in such numbers to gain the tops of the walls and the defenders succumbing to the onslaught. For some of these little courtyards had pitted and scarred walls from conflicts such as I had imagined
I was beginning to wonder as to the nature of the Latiian, that they could be so driven and as to their appearance, for the non Surian articles were strange indeed. There were curiously fashioned metal helmets far too large for any Surian I had ever seen. Unwieldy spikes with twine handgrips that I had though to be used for climbing walls but Pankov showed me their true use. Like a very short spear, for stabbing. They were too short to effectively use two hands and too heavy to use one, unless as befitted the helmets, the Latiians were very large and very strong. I shuddered as my imagination repainted the picture of them gaining the wall tops.
As we wandered, Pankov and I came to realise that most of the walls' tops were intact. Thinking at first that these were just the places where the Latiians had not in the event needed to climb because the defenders had been outflanked and evacuated the rampart, we gradually realised that this in fact was not the case, and the complexity of the design had fragmented the attack sufficiently for it to have failed to capture the entire fortress. This is in fact where Kiisk held.
Seeing a soldier on one of the ramparts we called to him asking how we could get through as we could find no access. The reply was that there was none, and that is how it would stay until the main wall was repaired. Asking then how we would gain entry to the fortress we were told to go back round to the main gate on the road. At this we tuned and were making our way back out when the sentry called us back and lowered a rope, by which we climbed to his position high on the walls of Kiisk.
From there we could see the full layout of the fortifications, this side being in three parts. The main fortress on the wall of which we stood, and which contained the primary quarters for the inhabitants. A secondary, or false compound which enhanced the size of the fortress but which only held animals, and a large wing wall serving no purpose other than to cause the construction to appear as massive as possible when viewed from either direction on the road.
Talking to the soldier we discovered that the other half was similarly built, with the main enclosure smaller and divided into two sections. Furthermore, all of the other half had fallen to Latiian attacks, with two breaches in the main walls, one in the false compound and a second in the smaller of the two defended sections. The Latiians then gained the second section by traversing the main walls. No one had survived that assault, and even now that half of the bastion was empty as it had been tainted by Latiian occupation.
The Latiians had not however been able to make advantage of that situation by gaining easier access to the primary fortress, and had so been forced again to invest the outside wall. Even with that done, as evidenced below us, they had failed to capture the fortification.
One reason for the failure was, we were told, the timely arrival of relief columns. It was true, the soldier related, that the Latiians were weak from sustaining the siege for nine months, but even more so were the defenders. It was only that they were fighting for their lives that kept them holding out. They had believed themselves forgotten or given up for dead so that when the siege was lifted finally, the relief it had occasioned was immense. But there had not been time for celebration as the pursuit of the retreating Latiians quickly followed.
The sentry did not know too much about that save for the stories coming back from the fighting as he had been in the Kiisk garrison and had remained there. His expectation was that the garrison would be reduced soon and those now fit after the months of deprivation would bolster the four Orel regiments now in Latii.
During the course of this conversation we had walked with the sentry on his ' 'beat' around the walls to the main gate and it was there that we parted company. He to the garrison quarters and we down the steps, out of the gate and back to our bivouac site.
We had not been gone for as long as a span. Four to five subspans at most, but the reception we got from the auxiliary Overseer was as if we had deserted from a battle and been in hiding for a year. We were shouted at, threatened, sworn at and generally belittled.
"How dare we leave our positions without permission? We were in the Army, did we not know?!!"
And so on. And so on. The tirade became quite wearisome, especially when I realised that it was all bluster‑ The upshot of it was that orders had been passed for my transfer now that we were close to the fighting. These had been issued in the early afternoon and of course I had not been there to receive them, thereby getting the Overseer in trouble. I was told in no uncertain terms to get out of his sight and report to the Kiisk garrison Commander who had messengers going to the regiments all the time. Escorted by one of these I was to transfer to the auxiliary section of the Zandov contingent of the Surian Army.
Seeing the sense of moving before the Overseers apoplexy killed him, I collected my gear, bade hurried farewells to Old‑neut and Pankov, whilst apologising to him for leaving him in the lurch and in trouble. He just ushered me off saying the quicker I was gone the swifter things would cool off, and he would in all probability meet me again anyway. He was most likely right.
So off I went, back to Kiisk. Back through the main gate and into the garrison where I reported for my duty. I did not see the garrison Commander, but an administrator who assigned me a place in a dormitory, telling me to be ready at first light for that is when the next messenger was leaving with orders for the High Chief of Zandov.
I slept fitfully for the dormitory was a little more than reminiscent of the cell in Pom. It would not have surprised me to find that in changed times, that is exactly what it was. The room was full of bodies all snoring away in tiered beds, not something I was unused to for all neut quarters were like this. But usually I knew most, and always had known someone else in the room. Not here. They were all strangers. From the look of them, for they had not all been asleep when I entered, they were from all parts of Sur.
As the darkness paled, I rose, washed, gathered my kit once more and went to the garrison administrators’ quarters where the lamps were on already. Entering the room it looked and smelled like they had been on all night, and the administrator echoed this impression. I waited patiently and when he looked up I explained that he had told me to be here at dawn. Gazing tiredly at me he said that it would be another subspan at least, for the documents were not ready yet.
At this, I asked if I could help. He half laughed replying. "Only if you can write."
Naturally I told him I could, for I had been a traders' clerk at one time.
Looking half eyed at me and obviously wondering whether to risk it he started to say no. But I interjected that it would mean that he could get some sleep a little earlier
With a lure like that, he could not easily refuse and so said that I could address the scrolls for him. In no time I had found a scriber and set to work. He checked the first one I did, approved it and left me alone to complete the work. It did not take long. They were orders for the conduct of the siege to all the High Chiefs of the lands of Sur, all ten of them excepting that the administrator was completing the last one. I checked with him that they should be sealed, and did that and stacked them in with the other orders for each High Chief.
On completion of copying out the last order from the notes taken by him last night into legible instructions the administrator relaxed whilst I addressed and sealed it. Then locking his room we both went to the kitchens in search of a light meal and drink. It would also be where the messengers waited.
After eating, we all returned to the administrator’s quarters where the messengers picked up their bags. Then everyone left, the administrator to sleep, all others including myself out on the road to Jojiisk.