I was woken by the sound of voices, sitting up with a start as I remembered where I was. The boat had become entangled in an overhanging tree that dipped its branches into the waters. Near the bank and at this point, the river was quite slow moving. How the boat had got into this position was beyond me. But here it was, and here was I.
Not very far off, judging from the pitch of the sounds for the voices were hushed, were a male and a female. What was more, they were coming closer. Raising my head slowly above the boats' sides I could see that it was well caught by the tree and most probably reasonably well hidden from both bank and river.
If they weren't actually looking for me and I stayed quiet, I would most likely remain undetected. These two came right under the canopy of the tree, though thankfully, the far side of the trunk. I lowered myself quietly back down just in case and waited for them to move on.
There words ceased and I was just about to look again to see if they had gone when the female giggled. Silently I cursed and demanded patience of myself. They would go soon. There was no reason to stay, at least none that I knew.
There came a series of grunting and whimpering noises the like of which I could not recollect ever hearing. These punctuated by a series of gasps that grew in intensity until the female cried out in pain.
"Turds to it!"
I could not stand by whilst someone was tortured. Pulling on the branches to bring the boat in close to the bank so I could get out and stop this took moments, but made quite a noise. Then leaping from the boat with one of the latiistabbers, I rounded the trunk to confront a scene that astounded me.
The male was half stood, frantically attempting to don his trousers. The female was laid legs wide and skirts awry. It took me a while to understand what was going on. In that time I stood unmoving, shocked by the scene. They had been copulating.
The female screamed hysterically and the male looked up terrified. Abandoning his efforts to dress, he fled through the overhanging boughs. The female hunched up. Her scream turning into a continuous wail turned staccato by gasps for breath. Utterly stunned, I could do nothing but return to the boat and kick it off from the shore. Truly this was a place of madness.
Using one of the paddles that had been left in the boat I propelled it clear of the overhanging vegetation and into the river main channel.
I had hardly achieved this than I regretted it, for on the far bank were Midean soldiers in aggressive posture. I had no particular desire for their attentions, but neither had I fear of them, until I realised their purpose. They were there to intercept what was lying in the bottom of this boat. Latii.
They were dead, but that did not make this craft less Latii like, and for me to be in it. Well, I figured they would probably kill first ask questions later. I could not out run them for already messengers were running off to signals posts. Distance myself from this batch and there would be more down river. I had to get out of this boat before it condemned me. Back to the near bank then, where I could only hope to get clear before the copulators raised the alarm. More than they already had.
Pillaging the two dead Latii for anything of use I only took two stabbers, there was nothing else. It dawned on me that they had been wearing no armour. That had made them easy prey to our missiles. A most uncharacteristic Latiian action, but I can only suppose it was to reduce the probability of drowning in the event of falling into the river.
Shock troops indeed, these fellows must have had some fortitude for they had no supplies whatever. Win or die. Well that is some spur, but not enough in the end, for here they were dead
In full view of the Mideans over the river I pushed the boat out again and made off directly away from them. At the edge of the flood plain the ground rose away reasonably steeply and despite the lack of power in my limbs I did not stop until I was over the low crest and out of sight from the river. Even so the pause was only to catch my breath and take a drink. Then I was up and going again. In the warm spring sunshine I tired quickly, and when the sun reached its zenith I had enough. I was forced to stop, eat, drink and rest. First of all I needed to wash off the nightmare.
The spot I came across was idyllic. A small stream running into a pool and surrounded by trees and bushes. Here I could recuperate for a while. Bending over to fill my flask I caught an image of wild savagery so stark it made me jump. Then I realised it was me. My face, hair and clothes were caked in blood and dirt. My visage lined with fatigue.
No wonder the female had screamed, or the male run off. But what were they doing? My mind went back uncomprehendingly. This was spring was it not? Yes, and the mating season is autumn is it not? Yes! So again, what were these two doing? The answer was, I did not know. Could this all be part of a mad dream? I did not know! How could I!?
I pinched myself.
"Oww! "That hurt!
This was no dream. Or was it? Would you not say "Oww" if you pinched yourself in a dream? I did not know, but resolved that if it were a dream at least I would be clean. Dousing myself in the pool I scrubbed and scrubbed until it hurt, then rubbed and thumped my shirt and hose until they looked at least presentable. Then checking around for pursuit I hung them up to dry, and lit a small fire to boil some water and make porridge.
I was spooning some of this into my mouth when the first one came through the bushes. They were good, for I had not heard their approach. But not that good, for this one was in immediate receipt of a face full of porridge. The second came through behind me but again too slow for I had snatched up the stabbers and turned to meet his sound.
He skidded to a halt just clear of my points, a look of horror on his face. Three more crashed through into the clearing and I was forced to back up to the waters' edge. I would have, and could have killed them, or at least some of them. Except that once again these were a different people. Of the same race as the people of Mides and Latii, these soldiers belonged to neithers' armies. Yet more came through the bushes, one of them the leader. Sizing up the situation he spoke.
"This one's not Latii. Hey Krugeij! Are you all right?"
"Yes my lord." Retorted the downed soldier, now sat wiping porridge from his eyes.
Turning to me. "Put up your weapons and you will come to no harm."
What choice did I have? I could take out a few, but not all of them. I still hesitated. Better to take a few then none.
"Promise?" I asked.
"On my honour." Was the reply.
Well that had to be all right. Latiians do not know the meaning of the word and Mideans die for it. I just hoped this fellow was more Mides than Latii. Slowly I lowered my stabbers, but not all the way.
"Let us see some of yours put up too." I demanded.
He ordered the troop, excepting the three nearest me to belt their weapons. I stuck mine in the ground at the waters' edge.
"That's better." He said. "Now step clear."
"Not until I know who you are and what you want." I answered.
He studied me for a moment, then spoke.
"Very well. I am Ahmoy Ah~mani. Captain in the Varlan Border Guard, and I want to know what you are doing in my sector."
"I was having some lunch." I replied, "Whilst I waited for my clothes to dry."
"I can see that!" Annoyed at my impertinence. "But why are you here and how did you get here? Krusskan aren't you?"
"I do not know what krusskan is, but whatever it is I do not think I am it. As to how I came, I came across the river from, from Mides I suppose."
"All right, how did you cross and why?"
Deciding to brave it out I said.
"Look. Do you mind if I put something else on. I am beginning to get chilly. Then I will tell you."
"Come on then." The captain laughed. "We'll even make you a spot of lunch as Krugeij has eaten yours."
He was as good as his word, organising his men into piquets and lookouts while lunch was cooking. I had a spare shirt and so donned that for modesty's sake as much as anything. I would have to wait for my only set of trousers to dry, or else wear the warm suit or oiled skins. I went without for the time being whilst I related how I had come from Swez as a porter but had not bargained for war and so had cut my contract with Mides. The only way out had been by boat.
Taking all this in, he asked what were my intentions in this case.
"I do not honestly know. I answered. "I suppose just to keep looking and learning in the hope that it will one day all make sense."
"Hah! That's some looking and learning you'll have to do then!"
"Yes." I replied. "I know."
"You're not heading back into Mides then?"
I paused before replying. "No. I do not think so. They are all right as people but I do not think there is anything great to be learned from them now. I am definitely not going into Latii. So yours is a new land. If I may I would like to learn something of you."
"Hah!" He laughed again. "All right! But we're just soldiers and by your telling you know of our work. You'd better stick with us for the present though. There are gangs of Latii loose, and people aren't asking questions or offering hospitality. We even thought you might have been one of them."
I said nothing more on the matter, merely deferring to his judgement.
The meal finished, I put on my trousers even though they were still damp, for the warm-suit would have been exactly that and the oiled skins would have cracked even more in the dry. At least I had a dry top, and anyway the trousers quickly dried out once on.
The route of march was in line with the river’s course and about four longpaces from it. There was a similar sized group tracking the same course much nearer the river. At salient points each would signal the other their findings, or not, as the case may be. They used large coloured flags for this purpose, and I asked if they would not be better using reflectors. When asked what I meant, I explained how the Legny had used mirrors to catch the sunlight and shine it as a signal beacon.
"That's a brilliant idea!" The captain exalted. "Much lighter! We'll have to try that."
As we moved on I told him, of the pitfalls. Like how it was not much good on a rainy day, and of the alternatives. i.e. The lamp system.
The troops were spread out in packets to cover the greatest area in their search. But this made them vulnerable and as a consequence movement was slow so as to be able to back anyone up quickly in the case of trouble and sure enough this came a subspan or so later. Not to Ah~manis' troops, but to those closer to the river.
The first indication was a failure to signal at the prerequisite point. Captain Ah~mani detailed off two runners to investigate the delay, and the line of search was pivoted in anticipation. It did not take long to discover the problem.
Moving parallel to the river and back up it about a longpace away were a party of Latii. It looked like ten of them, eight carrying their upturned boat shoulder high, and two flank guards. They were making no attempt at concealment, nor looking concerned at the Varlan troops in their rear.
"Hah!" Ah~mani laughed. Captain Mihjoij is afraid to take them! Half a troop against ten and he's waiting for our support! Hah!"
On the basis that each captain had half a troop, and knowing how many soldiers Ah~mani had, I think I might have waited as well. You cannot be too sure with Latii.
The flank guards saw Ah~manis' troop moving to cut their advance and signalled back. The boat was put down and the Latii deployed in pairs to form a cordon. Mihjoijs' half troop formed a battle line and advanced close whilst Ah~manis' troopers did the same from almost the opposite direction. The Varlan lines halted thirty paces from the Latii. Ah~mani called out;
"In the name of Varlan I ask you to put down your weapons."
No reply. The stabbers stayed where they were.
"Once again I ask for you warriors of Latii to cease warring on our lands."
Again no reply.
"I must warn you," Called Mihjoij, "If you do not surrender your arms peacefully we will take them by force."
At this, one of the Latii laughed. The laugh was cut short at one word from the commander. Knowing now which one was in charge Ah~mani directed the next question at him.
"Will you not parley"
"Chuck a stone at their boat." I said.
"What?" Ah~mani queried, turning angrily at me for interfering.
"Chuck a stone at their boat and see what they do." I repeated.
Baffled, Ah~mani asked why.
"No Latii I had ever seen stood like that, outnumbered and waiting for the inevitable." I explained. "They always made a go for it. Beat or bust so to speak. There had to be a reason for these not to do it. They were boat troops carrying their boat. That means to get back. Damage that and you might damage their rationale. Give it a try, you have nothing to lose."
Ah~mani bent and picked up a stone. Moving to a better view of the boat, he lofted it. It was a good throw, bouncing just short and ricocheting through the fabric siding of the boat.
The Latii commander immediately broke position to inspect the damage.
"Bastard!" He screamed, kicking the holed fabric through.
"Bugger me!" Ah~mani exclaimed. "Well done little one! You were right."
"Close up and de stagger." Yelled the Latii leader.
I had been expecting this as a possible outcome and had readied a stone of my own. Where Ah~mani had thrown from between his troops I went to the end of the line. This for two reasons, firstly I did not want to be at the focal point of Latiian aggression, and two to minimise the chance of the Latii commander noticing my throw until too late. My throw was good as well. The stone catching the Latii leader on the side of the head, coming as it was from an angle as he looked aside to Mihjoijs' line up. The leader dropped like he was the stone itself.
A delay in the attack ensued as no word of command was uttered. The Latii looked round, saw their leader struggling with his equilibrium on the ground, his head bloody. There was a sharp retort. Something like "Balls! Let's do it!" And they came.
A bit straggly, but potent nevertheless.
The resultant fight was short, the Varlan faring a lot better than I had estimated. They suffered three killed and two badly injured against four Latii dead. All the other Latii were injured in some way, one slipping in the mad charge and knocking himself senseless, a second unbalanced by another missile from me, winded in the fall and disarmed before he could regain strength. The other four all had fight damage. A broken shoulder, two broken arms and a stab wound in the leg between them.
The Varlan were cock-a-hoop. Actual incursions were pretty infrequent from what I could gather, and to have taken half a dozen Latii prisoners was a real coup. The troops had come out in force because of reports of large numbers of Latii landing on the Varlan shore. They had been expecting real trouble, and to find that this was the sum of it was a tonic and relief to all but the dead.
All the injured, friend and foe were treated for their wounds as best able in these circumstances, and the Latii who might later be problems bound up and in line together so that at the least they could walk. A stretcher was made for the Varlan soldier who could not walk and the entire assembly then made its painful way to a village for sustenance and overnight rest.
In the night word came that other parties of Latii had been found by the searching troops sent to counter them. There had been debacles and successes, but the authorities now believed that all the Latii were accounted for. Mihjoij announced this to the assembled troops early next morning, together with orders to take the prisoners to a central station. I thought I had misheard the name of the place, but on asking it was confirmed as AC4.
It took two days to get there with the prisoners. I had been politely but veryfirmly requested to accompany the party on its journey. I complied a little reluctantly, but not too much so. At least I still had my kit, and most importantly the stabbers. There were no stretchers on this trip, the injured Varlan being left at the village. The Latiian with the leg wound was forced to walk again. His companions could not help him for even the ones with broken arms were trussed. Despite valiant efforts, after a while on this longer journey he simply could not manage.
Ah~mani would have executed him at that point but much though I disliked all Latii and will readily kill them in combat I could not and can not hold with senseless killing in cold blood. I implored Ah~mani to not end this Latiians life by order. He relented, but only on the condition that I ensured that the individual kept up.
The first day was dreadful, with the Latiian leaning on me as a crutch. This kept up the pace but every step was torture to him and a bone shaking for me. At the noon stop I untied him and made a better job of strapping up his broken right forearm, binding this tightly to his chest, then retying his good arm so that he could use it on me for support, but little else.
Come the evening we stopped again in another village and I took the chance to try and alleviate the almost intolerable situation, for even as it was better, it was not going to enable him to last another day, let alone any further. I found a local carpenter, and for a stabber and my warm-suit he let me use his tools and helped me with the woodwork. It did not take long to make a sturdy trestle to lay the Latii on, the bit that took the time was making the wheels. The carpenter never having seen their like and me never having made them, between us we created a bodge up, but a bodge up that worked. I tested it with the carpenter on it. Running round his yard in the dark we had a great laugh. He was as happy as anything, for as I left he was working on making one for himself.
When I rolled up next morning and got the Latiian onto the cart neither Ah~mani nor his troops could believe their eyes. There was no trouble keeping up now, for all the soldiers wanted a go at pulling. It was awkward for them, for I had made the pulling bar at a comfortable height for me and they would nearly tip the Latiian off the back as they raised the bar to their level. This in itself was a source of mirth, with even the Latiian prisoners laughing at their comrades yells and struggles to keep on.
Watching them though, it occurred to me that it would have been better if the trestle had been made as a seat rather than a bed. Ah~mani was watching me as I ran the adjustments through my minds eye.
"What are you thinking?" He asked me.
I explained my thoughts on the seat, and how the bar should have been adjustable.
"You amaze me." He commented. "How you think of such a contraption at all is mind blowing."
I then told him of how I had seen far more complex devices being pulled by animals in Nul and Enar and that is where the idea came from.
The fun was over too soon and I was left pulling the cart. It ran easily on the well-prepared Varlan roads. The poor Latiian suffered a deal of bumping however, and despite his lack of complaint I could tell it hurt. There would have to be some means of absorbing that vibration if it were to be comfortable.
During the midday stop the Latiian commander came over to me and actually thanked me for easing his soldiers' pains. I was astounded. I had wondered at first what was going on as all five Latii had got up and come over, but that had to be for they were all still roped together. The words shocked and embarrassed me, few though they were. In all honesty I was too stunned to make a reply. My concept of what was Latii all overthrown in a moment. They had all returned to where they sat before, as if they too were humbled or embarrassed by the thanking.
I finished my meal of Varlan groundfruit and bread, then set to constructing a back prop for the cart. With no proper tools, it was a poor job. Just sticks tied together and braced at an angle then padded with some of the straw from the bed. I also put some rope loosely between the hafts of the pulling bars as the sitting up would bring the Latiis' weight more forward. With the rope I could take some of this on my shoulders. To ease them, I put all my packs on the back of the cart as some measure of counterbalance.
"Hey! This is luxury!" Said the Latiian as I helped him onto it as we prepared to start off again. "The Emperor doesn't travel this well!"
He was hushed in an instant by the Latii commanders' eyes.
All that afternoon the journey continued in silence down the long straight road that even had a name, though like the town it was headed for, it was a strange name. L7, going to AC4.
Overnight stop was again at a small village. I would have taken the time to improve the cart, but it was not needed as there was only another half days travel according to Ah~mani. As a consequence I was to some extent at a loose end that evening and so resolved to try and bring the Latii to conversation. The intention behind this was to try and straighten the image of Latii in my mind.
The prisoners were kept in a hut, separate from the houses and what looked like a poor attempt at winter quarters for farm animals. The hut was guarded; two outside, two in and the Latii had leg bindings that would prevent them from being able to run. I was glad that I was not suffering the same fate and could only assume that my lack of actual fight when apprehended was the reason.
I had absconded a pitcher of strong wine as an icebreaker and got it past the outer guards by explaining it as herbal water for the stab wound. Once inside, the flask was quickly disappeared. I went over to the fellow I had been dragging all day.
"All right?" I opened tentatively. "I. er, came to have a look at the leg if that is all right? See if it is healing right."
He nodded his assent. In the flickering torchlight I took a good look at the wound. It had scabbed over properly and had been kept clean. There was localised soft swelling and tenderness at the touch. At this stage, it was not too bad. There could of course always be complications later, but for now it looked like this fellow had been lucky. Well, relatively so anyway. I put my hand on his brow and he did not feel particularly hot nor cold, but then I did not know what normal body heat was for a Latiian.
"It does not seem like you have got the fevers yet, so you might be all right." I said, musing. "I, er, do not know your name."
"Soldier Rupanii." Was the reply, short and curt. Said low as if not to let the others hear.
"I am called Okta, if you did not know." I continued.
"I know." He replied.
I waited, but nothing further came. "Look." I said at length. "It is a shame, the way we people have met. But that is fate. You have your ways and I have mine. For me, I would want a hot poultice on that wound to bring out the swelling. But there it is, there are no mosses to be had in this village. I have already checked."
For a while there was no response, but then the commander spoke from nearby.
"Why what?" Was my retort.
"Why do you do this?"
"You mean checking on the leg?"
"All of it. The carrying thing, the attentions. Why?"
I was stumped for a moment. "Because...I do not know." I replied hesitantly. "I suppose because that is what we do. Where I come from."
"You treat with your foes?" The commander queried in a hostile and unbelieving voice. "Have you no honour?"
"It is not like that." I defended. "I mean, you are not my enemies. Well not exactly. Not now."
"What about this?" Jabbing a finger at the cut on his head. "You did this."
"Yes." I admitted. "But that was different."
"How? Either we are enemies or not. If we fight, we are enemies. How can you think it different?"
"But the fighting is finished." I replied.
"No!" He almost shouted. "It will go on and on until Latii has won completely!"
"There is not a lot of it going on around here now though." I quietly stated.
"We fight in our hearts." Was the commanders' answer. "And we will fight again given the chance."
"Where is the sense in that? Start anything and you will be cut down like grain at summers' end."
"Better to die in honour than live as prisoners." He retorted hotly.
"There is no honour in being cut down defenceless. Just like there is no honour in cutting the defenceless down." I quipped.
"The honour is in winning." The commander cut back.
"So killing females and children is honourable?" I questioned.
"If they are of the enemy." The commander replied unabashed.
"I see." I said. "The other night in Woneii I just thought it was a mistake, with them getting in your raiding parties' way. I was wrong. It was deliberate terror."
"The attack was deliberate." He confirmed, evading the issue.
"That was obvious." I commented. "When half a thousand enemy soldiers land from boats into a besieged town it is usually not a mistake."
"More than that." The commander stated, almost arrogantly.
"I know,.." I started, then thinking about it corrected. "No. In your numbers, I would guess that not more than four hundred came ashore."
"You were there?" He asked.
I confirmed this. The commander paled and looked sadly at his troops.
"Are you sure? After all, a victorious army always seems of a different size."
"Yes. Winners seem more, losers seem less. I saw the winners, and it was not your lot."
"You lie! We could not lose! Half a legion landed there as diversion with five more in assault. It is not possible that Latii failed."
"You failed to land." I quietly pointed out. "So must a lot of others, for there was no half legion near the bridge."
He looked at me for a long time, wondering whether to believe me.
"I cannot comprehend it." He broke at last. "How could anything go that wrong? The plan was good. The troops were trained. How could it not work?"
"It was the boats." One of the others cut in. "They were too full my Captain. You saw it too. There were two that just sank in our assault group and we saw another turned over by that bloody rope. Nobody could steer the things properly in the dark. That's what was wrong."
"Think about it." Said another. "When we went past, the first waves looked like they were in trouble, and there were definitely not as many boats on that bank as there should have been."
"Enough!" The commander ordered. "That we fail is dishonour enough. Latii will regain our rightful land."
"Eh-hum.!" Clearing my throat, I interjected. "That is not quite the way the Mideans see it."
"Well they wouldn't would they?" He answered. "But I speak the truth. The land belongs to Latii."
"All land?" I asked.
"No, of course not all. This for instance is Varlan. By treaty. Across the river is Latii. By treaty, but stolen by Midean bastards when our armies were clearing the lands of Jalii."
I was going to say something about that. About how they were not very clear now. But bit my tongue instead. Their plight was bad enough now and I did not want to turn them against me. I do not know why. I just did not. I left that night every bit as confused as to the Latii as I had been earlier. I had tied down no moral point at all, merely realising how single minded they could be. And yet despite it all they were as a Nulan border guard said to me, it seemed years ago now, still people.
But not for long.
Our arrival in AC4 was not auspicious. It was a drab and run down sort of place although built on Midean lines. Very orderly, very tidy, very uniform, right down to the people’s dress. There were stares at the cart, but the starers would suddenly look away as if they had been caught committing a crime. The council for justice did not look away. I had to wait, confined to a small house for three days to see them, and then the experience was a let down.
They looked as petty and mean a set of judges as one can imagine. Their action lived up to the image, that of malaise and incompetence. They could not decide what to do with me so referred my case to high court in Angeij, the capital. In the intervening time, as I had not been found guilty of any crime I could walk about freely provided I reported once a day to the militia station as appointed.
It was crazy. I was just shown the road and told,
"It is three days to AC3. Here is your pass. Have it marked at L5S3 the first night and L5S4 the second. Failure to report will equivolate with criminality and arrest and sentence will follow swiftly."
That was it. They expected people to make their own way to their own trial. To expect it means that people did it. To my mind, only the innocent would make such a journey of his own volition. Especially if they knew the consequences of disobedience or as the Varlan say 'criminality.'
The Latii had been criminals. They had violated Varlan soil and resisted the legal efforts of the Varlan armed forces to detain and interrogate them. With this case the judges could be clear-cut, petty and vindictive. The Latii were all dangling upside down in the town square when I left. They were all dead. All executed, their throats cut as they hung inverted. Perhaps the Latii commander had been right. It would have been much more honourable to die fighting.
It was certain that no honour existed in AC4 and I was glad to be clear of it. Knowing what I did about the state of Varlan signalling it was obvious that the posts ahead would have no warning of my arrival. I suspected that if I failed to turn up it would be some time before the authorities were aware of it. Because, for example, the militia would not report a failure to register until they were made aware that the registration should have occurred.
Even if they sent someone back to AC4 every day with a report of activity, I would have two days start on the pursuit party. Provided that was that I kept to open country for in every village someone had asked to see Captain Ahmanis’ seal, and would surely do so to me. Wait until you are further from here, I told myself. Every day further down the road doubles the time to discovery of my absence.
The days were easy, the distances between the stipulated villages limited. There could be no excuse for failing to arrive in time. That was if one intended on arriving. The Varlan system was a lot tighter than I thought. It seemed as if everyone had a title and a badge to prove it, with the authority to check up on anyone they liked to. If I produced my little pass twice in a day, I had to produce it a hundred times.
It was farcial until I realised its implication. Should I stray from my route I would quickly be put right, and then I would have to resume the correct way or take steps to prevent my deviation being reported. I would at no time have two or more days start but only as long as it took the last person to see me to report my abnormal activity. This was a body blow to my confidence, and it was in a despondent mood that I walked into the village of L5S3.
A strange name, I know, but it stood for the third state built approved overnighting station on the state designated route L5. I know because I asked. I also asked what the "state" was, and this ended in my being lectured as to the entire workings of Varlan government. This was because I could not understand how "everyone" was "the state."
Each village or town owned its surrounding land and this was administered by a Council of Representatives. This council then sent one of its number to represent the village on the District Council which sent one of its members to the Regional Council, which sent one of its members to the National Council. Each Council had its particular duties and responsibilities. Each with particular powers to alter or enforce the will of the people it represented. Thus in the long view, the land was administered by every single inhabitant. Thus; The State.
It seemed a fair enough system to me, and I said so. Thereby pleasing the speaker, who was providing me with a bed and evening meal courtesy of the pass. I had asked how I was to pay after I had been directed by the militia to this establishment.
"The pass is token enough," They had replied after a few moments of blank stares.
They told the truth. I needed no money, in fact I saw none change hands at all. Everyone had a pass and all the hosteler did was check their pass and mark down the numbers for any services rendered. Again a fair enough system if it worked.
It seemed to work for me. I wanted for nothing. Well nothing significant in terms of food or shelter anyway, a little less bland diet perhaps. If I had wanted more, I could not see how to obtain it for there were no stalls or shops. In each village there was a tavern or two, sometimes a small hostelry or a place to have ones hair cut and a bath. Occasionally a place to get a snack or meal, always a Council House, but nowhere a new coat or shoes. I did not need them, but thought the lack of establishments selling them odd. For surely the locals must need these things. I said nothing however. Until I really understood the workings of this system I considered it better to not make any comment that may possibly jeopardise my position.
The journey onward was uneventful in as much as nothing new occurred. The same pattern of continuous checking repeated itself however. This was not out of curiosity on the part of the enquirers. Behind each perfunctory request to see my pass was a hidden malice, then a relief as officiousness took over. The officiousness I deduced came when realising that I was en route to trial and therefore a potential criminal. But I could not make out why hostility and then relief. What I did realise, to my amazement, was that all these people could read.
Even if all they could understand were the symbols on a pass this was an astounding level of literacy, far outstripping any I had yet encountered. When you consider that in Surian speaking lands the norm is about twenty in a hundred. Here the figure is more like eighty per hundred. The vast difference is plain to see. Mind you, from what I had gathered, it is much worse in Aponia. Probably only three or four in a hundred being able to read or write.
AC3 was almost an exact replica of AC4. I did not like these recurrences of vision or experience. So far they had been precursors of bad luck and violence. Perhaps the 'almost' of exactness would be the difference, for it was not the same. One was most undoubtedly a copy of the other, but with true irony, where the uniformity is intended the nature of people perverts it. It is only where fate decrees a duplication and the recipients are unaware of it that a true parallel exists. The peoples' manner and dress were the same, the layout and buildings were the same, but there was an underlying subtle yet intrinsic alteration to the mould which made it just that little different and so unique.
The placing of the militia house was the same however and there was no difficulty in my finding it to report in. Should there have been, I should have only needed to query its location with any one of the thirty or so people who stopped me inside the town boundaries before I reached it. Inside, I handed over my pass for inspection and was a little dismayed when it was thrown aside.
"Hold on!" I cried at the desk officer.
He merely looked up at me in a manner that told me instantly that I had stepped out of line. I shut up and backed off. There was a moment of silence as he completed what he was writing. Then looking up again he spoke. "Name?"
I told him.
I told him this too. He grunted, hesitated and then continued writing.
"All right." He spoke again at length, handing me a thin yellowish wooden chip with a thong.
"This is a town pass. Wear it visibly and you won't create work for my deputies. Go now to the way station and let them know you'll be stopping overnight. After that you can do as you please so long as there's no trouble. Come here tomorrow morning for your new pass."
Bemused, I thanked him and complied with the instructions.
The desk officer had done me well. What was intended as less disruption to his minions made life easier for me too. So long as I wore the yellow pass for all to see, I was not stopped for identification demands. He had also done me a favour in sending me to the town way station, for here was a very comfortable residence. This was no ordinary hostelry. The entrance hall was cool and airy, the staff welcoming and helpful. Each sleeping room had a fluffy bed, which held the sleeper as if they were floating on a pond. There were private washing facilities with the latrines cunningly placed so as to be accessible and yet not odorous.
The premises had its own hot spa pool and steam baths with attendants to massage the weary traveller, and the cuisine provided was sumptuous. In all a superior establishment, not unreminiscent of the hostelry in Dema and far the better. I had to ask if indeed I was in the right place. I was advised that yes of course I was. This was after all the only way station in town, so where else could I be?
My puzzlement was explained. This entire complex had been constructed two years ago for a special visit by the grand Elector of Varlan. Since that time it had served very well to improve the standing of AC3, even diverting travellers from the Krogeij-Angeij L1 road, much to the towns' profit.
"Fine." I thought, "But if there were no money to change hands, how could there be profit?"
Over the evening meal, at which I shared a table with two visiting officials, I asked the question.
"Money," Came the answer. "Is a source of evil and a temptation to the weaker spirited to transgress against the community, as you should well know. But being a foreigner I suppose you might not."
I assured them the concept was a new one on me, but that I was open to new or different ideas.
"You really should listen to the teachings of Valadij my boy." Said one. "Maybe you can when you get to Angeij. I know it's so hard to fit in the readings when travelling."
"I will try." I assured again. "But I still do not quite understand how the system works."
"Oh well, it's the same thing. Just at different levels." The other put in. "You see, as everything is owned by everybody, technically each individual has everything and therefore all they could possibly want. The problems come with the distribution of everything and who gets what when there isn't enough to go round."
"So," He continued. "At the start everyone is deemed to be equal, but obviously some people have more worth than others so these are awarded bonus states according to rank. And conversely, quotas are deducted for poor performance."
"So how is there profit?" I questioned again.
"The profit comes with status don't you see? The more status quotas a person or region gets, the better the choice of available commodities."
"Ahh!" I exuded, understanding now. "But who decides which person or region has the 'bonus status'?"
"Why naturally, the council above the relevant station. That's only logical isn't it?"
"Oh, yes." I answered. "I only wondered."
It sounded a good and sensible system. I wondered to myself why other nations hadn't adopted it. Apart that is from the obvious first problem that the people with wealth and power had to be deposed. Thinking about it more, I realised that for all its attractions it was a system that was for the twin genders only. It could never work in Valev or Sur. The males there were in enough trouble there without quota deductions being put on them.
Seeing me deep in thought, one of the two officials spoke up, asking me to air my mind.
"I was thinking," I told them. "That the system in Valev is not so different, excepting that instead of quotas we use coins."
"But a lump of metal can be worth a whole Tamarat or nothing, depending on the whim of the mighty. How much better and fairer our way?"
"Perhaps," I answered. "But in a bad year, cannot a bonus quota be worth nothing?"
They conferred on this and eventually concurred but stated that this was only in theory as no 'bad ' years had happened in living memory.
Well I did not like to say anything, particularly in such good surroundings. But the general state of repair of the towns and houses, let alone the people and fields was not what I would have called good. Sure, they were all functioning well enough, but in comparison with Mides, just across the Var river, or the Einul lands it was all second best and slightly shoddy. I was going to say 'It was if there were no more love here anymore'. But I could not, because there was. I had heard it at night in the next room to mine. It was like breeding season for the whole land. Bumpings and bangings, grunting and groaning, squealing and sighing. I was glad when it was all over and I could get some sleep.
On the road again next morning I gave the matter some thought. From observation, I could see that the young here were in age batches, the same as everywhere else. This meant that these people bred once a year like everything else. So why was their breeding season so different to all the others? They were after all the same stock as Milatans. I suddenly had a curious thought, triggered by a memory. Hu~gens' face that day, coming back from gaining the translation of the paper. It had not been breeding time then and yet I was sure he had been indulging in sexual acts. Perhaps these were the same. Coitus as a bonding gesture? Practising for the real thing so to speak. Well! I never! It would explain the out of timing of the goings on. But could it be?
I would not know for I could not find out and one just did not talk about these things beyond the walls of the neut quarter. I would keep a lookout though, for as an outside thought I had considered the early breeding season as a potential candidate for the Hivalev situation. There was time enough, for it was another two and a half days to Fiveways, where my present pass would expire.
"You'll be in AC2's district then." The desk officer had told me. "They will issue a new pass for that region when you get there. But don't expect much, they're as slack as that lot at AC4. Can you imagine the nerve of the way they word passes?"
I said that I did not know what was on it and so could not comment, whereby he dug out the old pass and explained what each bit was for and what it said. Comparing it with the present one, I saw his point.
At AC4 the pass had been imprinted, "VALEV OKKTA. Category FA, (which I was told meant unregistered foreigner.) Cause: TNR (High court action on illegal entry, non-violent. Supportive to the state.) Authority: CF4A (Military security committee, central AC4). Destination: Angeij via AC3/AC2. Stops in AC4R; 1=L5S3. 2=L5S4. AC3/2=as directed."
"No way did they have the authority to write cause T." The officer continued in explanation, "That was for when people were sent for. It should have been cause L (awaiting decision), and it couldn't be NR. If you were supportive of the state entry couldn't be illegal."
Thus, the new pass was written as category FA, cause LR. Authority: AM3L (Militia, civil jurisdiction AC3 district). The worst blunder had been the assumption that other regional authorities would do as AC4 instructed. The pass should have been to AC3 only and listed stop 2 (L5S4) as in AC3. Complaints would be made, the desk officer assured me as he sent me on my way.
Mightily pleased, I stepped out aware that the nature of the pass had been changed completely. Even better, as I walked the distance to Fiveways I concluded that with a little guile I could have the next pass altered further so as to make me a quite acceptable part of this regime. Provided that is that I did not overplay it. I had two and a half days to mull it over amongst the other things running through my mind.
At both overnight stops I tried my luck a little with the Militia, as if checking that they knew the symbols' meanings and so finding their interpretations of the resultant. It was enlightening to find that each one had a varying concept of the symbol combinations. Although each symbol was individually clear, when used in conjunction with another it muddied the water of meaning leaving it open to individual interpretation.
Just with the pass as it was, one fellow considered me a hero of the land en-route for a rich reward. By that, in this country of course, he meant position and power, not financial gain. I had discovered that the strength of this society was its greatest weakness. Namely its bureaucracy; its regimentation; its order; its predictability.
It was a good idea gone wrong through overplay without adaptation of the parts to suit circumstance. Through repression of the individual to suit the mass,and flying in the face of nature. The intention had been quite the reverse, the conditioning of the mass to accept the individual as its vital heart. But the lesson had become corrupted in the teaching. Still, the system worked and it was not my place to fault it, nor bring its disharmonies to address. It was after all not a regime in which I was asked to live, merely one through which I must pass.
Here it was. A decision, conscious or otherwise, I should quit this country too. These were a people not of my kind, and for all the lessons on life I might learn here none would answer the most pressing concern of my High Chief, and the population of Hivalev. The only question I could now ask was "Where next?"
In Fiveways I was determined that 'next' would not be the capital. This was for two reasons. Firstly, a more direct or quicker route may have been taken with a detailed account of my supposed criminality and delivered to the courts of justice. Secondly, even if this were not so, there may be more skilled 'readers' of passes who would discern that a change had been made. After all, I could not conclude a motiveless despatching of persons to the capital. Accordingly, I played the blasé innocent whilst at the same time catching every word and gesture of the militia at the reporting station.
There, I was entertained by a rerun of the playlet "The harassed official." Again it was bureaucratic bungling by someone else, this time the AC3 desk officer. He was called a number of unrepeatable names for the problems that had been caused. The Fiveways Militia were not empowered to issue passes to foreigners, and therefore my pass should have been clearance all the way to Angeij. What to do now stumped them. They did not want to keep me in Fiveways, for I was obviously destined for the capital and my non-arrival would cause waves.
Apart from that, there was the food I would eat and the bed I would sleep in to consider. Faced with a long stop in Fiveways I had to speak up and try to unjam the deadlock.
"Who can you issue passes to then?" I asked.
"Only registered citizens of Fiveways district." Came the answer. "And then only as far on as AC2."
"So register me here and send me via AC2." I suggested.
They did not like the sound of that but it was a way round the problem so they went off to confer, leaving me in a waiting room. Some while later the desk officers' superior returned to announce that the powers that be had decided on my registration being the only reasonable solution.
The process took hardly any time at all. My name and age were noted in a book with a few short words to describe my status. I was then sent off to accommodations under the authority of my old pass. The new one was presented to me in the morning. Except that there were two. A pass to AC2 marked OA-LR, and a registration docket which was not really a pass at all. It would not allow me to actually go anywhere. It was valuable nonetheless for it established me as a bona fide citizen of Varlan. Without knowing it these officials had written out the reason for my going to Angeij. There was no longer a "crime " to answer for as I was no longer an illegal entry to the land.
Another three day journey confronted me, but this was as before, no problem. I was used to travelling and these days were easy, each only covering thirty or so longpaces. Even better was that there were other people on the pathway. Only one or two at a time perhaps, but there nevertheless and all chatty. Idle chat for the main, but here and there I would glean an interesting point. The real fortune lay in that all these peoples’ journeys were local in the extreme.
It was necessary to obtain a pass in order to travel out of ones home district and my possession of such an item was something to start a conversation. After that is, the pass had been checked. All these conversations were fruticiously cut short before I had to go into too much detail by the needs of the individuals to get on with their work. For work there was a plenty.
The land around Fiveways and all the way between there and AC2 was flat, a huge plain kept fertile only by a vast irrigation system. The ditch and dam arrangement was itself so complex as to almost defy belief in its planning and construction. This was augmented though by a piping assembly for cross-channelling and final delivery. As must have been the construction, the maintenance of this system was patently a massive task.
I saw gangs cleaning and relining ditches, digging new ones, repairing sluice gates, rearranging piping and operating the various devices employed in the control of water to the fields. That was aside from those steadily working the lines of crops, weeding and tidying. This whole area put all the farming I had seen so far to shame. Not least the Valev way where the grain is just scattered on broken up ground and left to grow. True, efforts are made to ensure the ground is both well watered and drained but no one ever weeds it or takes anything like the care these people seem to do.
I noted as well, that some areas were left bare of crop, with weed as their only product. I asked about this and received the reply that it was always done like that and I should know it. One year in ten the ground needed a chance to recover or the crops would fail.
There! You see? From idle chat a gem. Normal here, possibly a saviour to Valev. That, with or as an alternative to the Enaran system of burning, should see the crop problem resolved. There still remained however the matter of the other thing. I decided to test the water so to speak, with one of the more intelligent travellers I encountered.
When asked the purpose of my journey, instead of telling how I had been sent for to 'receive the thanks of the state for my services' (sic), I 'confessed' that I was going from doctor to doctor looking for a cure, for I could sire no sons. (No lie, for I was neut, but most of these people did not know what that was)
"Really?" Came the reply to my statement. "You're in for a journey then for it's sure they will send you to the Sage at Samageij in that case."
"Really?" Said I, echoing the speaker’s tone. "Why is that then?"
"You haven't heard then? In these things there is no equal?"
"No." I replied truthfully.
"Cuts, illnesses, broken limbs, you name it and the doctors of Varlan are amazing." The speaker rambled on. "But when it comes to siring they can't touch the old Sage."
At our parting I thanked the old fellow for his help, though the graphic details of the procreative process I could have done without. I suppose you could say that at least I knew the 'ins and outs' of it now. It was enough that now I knew my next destination. Samageij was where I must go, and now I would try to subvert the officials of AC2 to this intent.
I considered throwing away the old pass and playing to luck and nature as I had done so far, but rejected the idea and retained the pass as a fall back.
Entry into AC2 revealed yet another planned settlement almost identical to previous ones save that here it was hotter and drier. For all that it was only the third month of the year, it was remarkably warm in this locality. Where the irrigating waters did not reach the ground it was parched, as if it had suffered a long dry summer already. Just walking along paths or roads that were not gravelled or paved raised dust that the breeze would catch up and blow about, and then deposit in a fine film on every surface and in every fold or crack. This of course meant that it got up noses, and in eyes, ears and in mouths necessitating frequent washes to remove the latest accumulation.
Water use here was strictly controlled and so it was as a dusty form indeed that I dutifully reported to the militia house. It was empty, no one there at all. I looked behind the desk and in the back rooms. All were devoid of people. The rooms were not however empty, all the paraphernalia of the militia lay on tables and stacked on shelves, even passes hanging behind the desk, just no people. I was tempted to take one of the yellow passes from the desk, but deferred from it for after all they were only for the immediate locality and I would probably be given one anyway.
What I could not resist was the blue-banded pass on a shelf in the back office. The travelling officials I had met in AC3 held similar identifications to this, and although I did not know the exact status of this, it could not be at all bad. It slipped easily into my pocket as if it were meant to be there. I kept wanting to look at it but was afraid to in case anyone came in and saw me. When someone finally did, I was caught out.
Half dozing in the heat where I had been waiting too long, the opening door made me start. A tall strong male strode in dressed as a captain of the guard. Looking round, he saw me and asked, "Anyone here?"
"I do not think so." I answered cannily. "I have been here ages and no one comes even when I call."
"Bloody Militia!" He muttered and strode out again, only to reappear. "If they come back before I do." He addressed me. "Tell them I was here. All right?" No please. No thank you, just a 'do it' attitude.
"All right." I said, though I was not sure I would.
He looked at me again, shook his head and was gone. It was not long before the Militia appeared. Three of them.
They came in through the back door like a horde of buzzers was chasing them. One went straight to the front door and peeked out whilst the others did a quick check of the building. All three pairs of eyes came to rest on me.
"Been here long?" Asked one.
"Quite a while." I replied.
"Anyone else been here?" Put in the second.
"Captain of the Guard." Said I.
"Ohh shit!!" Exclaimed the third.
"What did he do? What did he say? What did he want?" Questioned the first.
"Took a look around. Said to tell you he had been. I suppose he was looking for you though he did not say."
"My arse! We're dead!" Moaned the third.
"Shut up!" The first ordered. "Get a grip of yourself!" Then turning back to me. "Did the Captain touch or take anything?"
"Not that I saw." I replied truthfully. "He was not out here long though."
"Good. Good." Mused the first.
"Hold on!" Interjected the second. "What are we at? Who are you? Let's see your pass!"
I handed over the two Fiveways passes. Two looked them over and passed them stone faced to One. He too was not impressed.
"This is a load of rubbish." He said, throwing the tags in the corner.
"Hey!" I cried. "That's my identity card!"
"Valadys’ arse it is. So who are you?" This said with anger and menace.
"You read the pass." Was my answer. "I am who it says. Valev Okkta of Fiveways."
"Yeah! And my shit doesn't stink!" Quipped three.
"I doubt that." I retorted, standing firm. "But your manners do."
"What?!!" Gaped One. Aghast that anyone could talk so to the Militia.
"You little bastard! You'll pay for that, Captain or no Captain!" Was Three’s response to the matter.
"Wait! Just wait!" Interjected two, physically restraining three. "What if this is the Captains plant? How do we look then?"
"But what if it isn't a trick?" Put in One. "Look. Don't you think it's a bit obvious for a start?"
Three and Two looked at each other, then at me and back to One.
"Maybe." Said Two. "It just maybe."
"If that's the case I'll have the little bastardnow." Three growled.
"No!" Two ordered. "No. We can't take the chance. And anyway, if this is real and the Captain finds out, the trouble we're in now may swing it against us."
"Yes, I see that." One agreed.
They were talking among themselves now.
One: "But we can't leave this youth here to speak against us. So what do we do?"
Two: "Get rid of this person, thing.
Three: "I'll do it."
At this, my hand closed over the hilt of my stabbers, which was out of sight in my bag.
Two: "Fool! The captain's seen it. He has to see it again or he'll go through us like a dose of salts."
One: "So what now?"
Two: "Shut up and let me think!"
One and Three shut up. Two paced the room chin in hand. Stopping, he retrieved the discarded passes.
"Got it! Here's a pass in. We give him one out!"
"Excellent!" Cried One.
Two turned to Three; "You'll have to stick by him all night and see him off the district tomorrow. All right?"
"And make sure the Captain sees him but doesn't talk. All right?"
One to Two; "Where'll the pass be to? We can't send him back to Fiveways, or to Angeij. So where?"
Thinking again, Two replied: "How about ?"
"Samageij." I interjected.
"Samageij?" Two questioned.
"It is where I am headed anyway. So why not?"
"That's good. That's good!" Two laughed. "Why not? Go on! Samageij it is!"
"Tell me." Three, whose real name was Uijaan, asked later on over a meal in the hovel that was his home. "Are you really in with the Captain?"
Truthfully, I told him I was not. He was still not sure as to whether to believe me, and questioned how even though I were a foreigner, perhaps more so because of this, I could be so unperplexed in front of Militia.
"Simple." I answered, and dug a stabber out of my bag.
His eyes widened. "By the grand Electors' parts. Where did you get that?"
I thought about lying, but considered that a modicum of truth might be more effective, so told him. An abridged version naturally, not mentioning Mides or Wonarr, just the Latii in Varlan. That was enough. The graphic description I gave of the fighting made him choke on his bread.
His female came and roughly hit him on the back to clear the congestion. I thanked her in the Valev way but the Varlan tongue, as mother of the house. She looked at me as if I were a dull-brained child, mumbled with annoyance and left the room. She had given me the same look, when on entering the premises I had given greeting and asked for her welcome. Even then she had turned away without a word and I had been pushed inside by Uijaan.
I know that in all the Milatan and Aponian lands the male is dominant, but I find this fall from grace of the female hard to comprehend. As always, the race depends upon both, and yet here the one is definitely second-class. Strange, but then not a matter for me to right. For this, like the others, is not my land.
I had been brought here because the Captain was lodging in the towns’ hostelry. Uijaan had escorted me there to parade my safe presence in front of the captain in a mock signing in ceremony, but had quickly guided me out of a rear door and away to his house. What the Militia thought I could or would tell the captain I do not know, but they went to pains in order to assure its non-communication. For me, I was not really that fussed for it meant I got my way, although I would have preferred the comforts of the hostel.
Here it was not so clean, and there were no private sleep rooms, but the bed was a bed and I was fed. I could ask no more. That I was not at ease with it may be indicated by my dozing only to be woken by every rustle. In particular the rustlings that came from behind the blanket separating Uijaan and his female from the snot nosed children now asleep, and with whom I was ensconced, implied that rutting was once more in process. Perhaps it had been because of where I had stayed, and in what company, but there had not been that sort of activity in Mides, which made this even more seem to be land of lust.
I knew that I could have sneaked out then, or later in the night and been well away. But I did not go for two reasons. Firstly of course the lack of valid pass, and two, I wanted to broach the subject at some time whilst being 'escorted' out of the district.
The rustlings of the night were replaced by dawn. My rising to wash ready for a new day had Uijaan bursting from behind the curtain, accompanied by angry remonstrances from the female.
"Where d'you think you're going?" He demanded as menacingly as his sleep filled form would allow.
"To wash." I told him, even explaining taking my bag because it contained a substance called soap, which improved cleanliness.
Eyeing me warily, he let me go after I assured him I was not running off. He returned to his wife's wrath and the newly woken children's moaning. It was not at all a pleasant start to the day.
Breakfast was meagre and cold, the family remaining securely in bed and Uijaan having to prepare it himself. This was done bleary eyed and miserably. In fact he was in no mood to communicate until well after he had collected my passes and we were en-route down L4 again.
"Slow down!" He remonstrated. "Don't you think you've been enough trouble without trying to kill me?"
"Sorry." I said as an answer. "That is just the speed I go." Then after a pause in which I slowed for him I half asided, "Perhaps if you had not been mock breeding you would have more energy."
He raged immediately.
"You insolent bastard! Were you watching as well you dirty sod?!"
"No! Not at all." I retorted, backing clear of his attempts to grab me. "The noise woke me and I did not realise what it was at first."
"What?" He stopped. "How can you say you didn't know the sound of it. And anyway we weren't noisy!"
"I did not say you were. Just that it was a strange house and a strange noise. I had to think long and hard as to its source. Might have been vermin for all I knew."
"Come off your speaking stool!" He responded. "You're a fellow too. Different race I'll grant you, but a poke is a poke wherever."
"Perhaps." I continued. "But I was fooled by the time of year."
He looked quizzical. "What d'you mean? What's wrong with the time of year?"
"Well, breeding does not begin until autumn does it?"
"Eh?.. First cycle done already where you come from then?"
It all dropped into place with that. These people had TWO breeding seasons a year!
"Oh er, yes." I bemusedly replied.
Grinning licentiously, Uijaan spoke;
"Not here it hasn't. Surprised you can't tell. My missus is ripe!"
"I had not noticed." I said, walking on again strangely disturbed by his revelations.
"Gorr!" Uijaan exhaled, catching me up. "Can't wait to get home again." His face was screwed up in delight at the imagination of his wife waiting back in AC2.
"Go now if you like." I said. "I am not turning off this path, so there is no need to come with me any longer."
He looked at me straight. As if weighing me up. "No I can't."
I pushed up the pace a bit. Then a bit more.
"Hold on! Hold on!" Uijaan panted a little further on. "I can't keep this up. You'll have to slow down!"
I turned, wanting rid of him now I had the information I had sought.
"Look. I have a destination to reach. I am leaving you behind so if you want to keep after me that is fine. But you might as well turn around now, for I will not slacken my pace. Ido not want to be in the middle of nowhere in the dark."
With that I turned again and continued my way. I heard no more but when after a few hundred paces I glanced back, he was still there, and sat down by the road. I did not slow down or return and a longpace on when I looked again, I could see he was walking home. Not much further on I stopped and made a proper breakfast. But this was not much of a delay for I reached the scheduled stopover by mid afternoon. At which time I had to call a halt at least for a while, as the heat from the overhead sun was stifling and I could feel myself drying out rapidly.
As in AC2 there was no one to be found in the Militia house of the village, nor in fact anywhere. It was as if the entire population had disappeared. Well, in one manner they had! I searched around for a while and finding no one, topped up my bagged supplies and water then walked on. I did not like the thought of staying in a village empty of life and yet full of its artefacts. One of the artefacts, I took with me. A large brimmed hat, to shade my eyes from the sun, I needed nothing more, or so I thought.
As darkness approached I prepared to make camp. The first task, that of collecting fire wood, was surprisingly hard. The wild bush like plants that grew about were surprisingly tough and stubborn in resisting my efforts to break them up. But at length I managed to overcome their objections and amassed enough dried stem to last well into the night. I did not want to be too obvious, and so dug a small pit for the fire and collected stones to secure the sides. It was as well that it was not quite dark for under one of the stones was a creature which would have had my fingers if I had not seen it. That it was only the same size as my hand did not dissuade it from continuing its attack on me, but Latiistabber soon put paid to it.
I was more careful now, not wanting to disturb more of these horrid things. I only hoped that they did not come out in the night anyway. My hopes were ill founded. As darkness fell the land came alive. There were stirrings, scrapings and scamperings all around, much to my dismay. Huddling close to the fire and even setting out a cordon of firebrands I slept fitfully, waking at every new sound. Checking the circle of protection and renewing burnt out sections, then slipping back into a doze only to be woken again in what seemed only moments.
What finally got me was not the incessant struggle of the creatures of the night, but the cold. I had known that the nights here were cool, but I had gained no real idea of how much so. With no warm-suit or blanket and in direct contact with the ground, my body temperature plummeted. I felt as if I were freezing. The fire did not help much for it was only embers by that time and I had nothing to top it up. That which I had collected for that purpose was itself burned out, having been used as my anti bite screen. In my slowing brain I realised that exercise was the only answer.
I could risk being bitten whilst collecting firewood or more usefully press on down the road. The night sky was clear and so visibility was good. That settled it. I would walk. Walk I did, not fast but steady. Enough to keep me warm without major danger of tripping over. I tripped more than once anyway but fortunately came to no grief. It was one tired fellow who witnessed dawn arrive behind him in that inhospitable land.
The rising sun emphasised the continuing flatness and waterlessness of the land. The irrigation system had thinned out as I progressed on the previous day. Here it had almost ceased to exist. The only signs of it were sluice gate posts way off to my left and the gradual greening of the ground in that direction. Elsewhere all was dunne, barren and dusty. Since before AC2 the environment had been slowly altering towards this state, but the overnight march had accentuated the change incredibly.
Being able to see properly now, I was able to scrabble about and find enough detritus to make a fire and prepare food. This I did, although so tired I was barely able to keep my eyes open. Despite the brightness of the day, I nodded of in its warmth, feeling quite sure that I was safe from the night biters.
I awoke with a start and a pounding headache. The sun was at its zenith and I had been quietly cooking in its glare. My head felt on fire. Sloshing some of my water on my face and scalp helped. It also restored my ability to focus, in particular on my uneaten breakfast. Uneaten by me that was, for it was in the process of being systematically devoured by a troop of large crawlers, each half the size of my thumb. Their combined weight had tipped the pot from the edge of the burnt out fire where I had last placed it and they were now queuing up to dig out lumps of the congealed mess and then carrying them off to an unseen nest.
I left them to it, feeling fortunate that these creatures had found my food before they found me. By the size of their pinchers any bites would have hurt like anything, and by their manner they would have used them. Retrieving the hat, which because it was too large for me had fallen off as I keeled over, I re donned it and made ready to continue on my way. The pot would have to stay where it was, for I was not going to tempt fate with the day biters.
Onward then, ever onward, with the heat coming down in layers that shimmered on a receding horizon. I ate a little stale bread as I walked, but this was so dry it required washing down with water and I was running out of that faster than I cared to admit. It was almost beyond belief that it could be this hot, let alone so early in the year. But the sky was cloudless with no sign of relief from the suns baking rays.
I had lost track of time but the sun had seemed to dip a little when a distortion in the shimmer dissolved slowly into dwellings. The relief I felt as I lurched into the settlement, it was too small to be called a village, was beyond description. Again there was no one to be seen as I drenched my head under the water outlet. After drinking my fill and replenishing the water bottle I set to looking around.
There was not much to look around. Four shacks, a hostelry-cum-canteen and a Militia house, which was really just a shack attached to a strong room and office. The Militia house was completely empty, but I did find someone in the hostelry, although they both were asleep in what I could only presume were the proprietors' quarters. I did not want to wake anyone so found a room for myself and laid down on the rude bed to rest my body.
The next thing I knew it was dark and I was being gently shaken to awake. Turning over, the female of the house was knelt beside the bed.
"Will you come and join us? Or should I bring you something?"
Half asleep, I did not quite catch the meaning and so struggled for an answer.
"You must eat." She said. "All that sun does you no good. It burns you dry, and you're well on the way to being cooked. Poor thing."
Rubbing my eyes and shaking my head, I tried to clear the muzziness. But it would not go.
"Come on with you." She chided gently. "You'll feel better for a wash and a meal." Rising, she continued. "I've brought some water for you, so be a fine fellow and we'll see you shortly."
With that she left the room, closing the door behind her. I did the best job I could with the available liquid and put on a spare shirt from my bag. It was true. I did already feel better, and so went out into the communal area of the hostelry, which, it transpired was the source of the delicate odours of cooked meats. The entire population of the settlement must have been in that room and although I had not realised it they had been waiting for me before starting their meal. My arrival occasioned a surge of vocal and consumptive activity. The vocal being those who had not dishes before them already. Little of the talking was to me, but a good deal of it was about me, and all speculative until some comment of mine would firm or counteract an opinion. This would then start a new avenue of conjecture.
These were people with little of reality to converse about and who were therefore open to fantasy. Such were the flights of imagination heard around me I considered it my duty to not break the spell. My tale was thus embellished and adapted to the minds and needs of the listeners. The battles were not described in blood and carnage but of dark and light in word and deed with half the story told by locals, for it was more their tale than mine. My presence was merely an adjunct to the story and that was best for me, for it permitted my safe rest and onward travel next day without hindrance and indeed with the full moral support of the small community.
It was not many subspans before this road; the L4 came to abrupt cessation. This was in the form of a 'T' junction where I was to turn right onto the Samageij/Krogeij road, which by midday began its short descent into the valley of the river De~wups. At the river I learned why the Militia in AC2 had been amused at my desire to go to Samageij, and why they had agreed it.
Samageij was not in Varlan.
Just the far side of the De~wups it may be, but there lay the land of Driike.