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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
When is the future past, and the past the future?
An explorer comes across an indigenous storyteller.

Submitted: November 19, 2007

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Submitted: November 19, 2007




A Folk Tale


James Gagiikwe


I was following the course of a river. As dusk fell, I saw a campfire about a kilometre away, set among some rocks reflecting a pale glow in the dying sunset. I headed my vehicle that way to investigate. About one hundred meters out I turned off the engine and let the vehicle coast quietly to a stop. After radioing my position to base I switched on the recording devise attached to my belt. Getting out I walked as softly as I could towards the flickering light. A person sat with their back to me. As I reached the edge of illumination they said over their shoulder, “You have noisy feet, outlander. I have been waiting for you.”

An oldish looking man motioned for me to sit. “It won’t be cold tonight,” he said of the fire, “but the smoke keeps away the mosquitoes. Not that they’d bite you anyway.” The fire was pungent in my nostrils. I sat on a log next to the old man. His skin was the colour of walnuts. He had a short, well-groomed white beard, and wore clothing coloured russet and green that blended with the colours of the scrub around us. “I am Cuddar, the Storyteller. My people are the Ostaiga. We live here, along the river. I will tell you a folktale while this stone cooks.” He took a forked stick and turned over a fist-sized rock in the centre of the fire, and threw a few sticks on top.

He began his folktale “Once in time – there were two peoples, the Phranya and the Dimewim.”

* * * * *

King Vinhaldu lay dying. Havrl sat at the bedside holding his father’s hand. It was cool, without its former strength, the skin almost translucent. Wacix, the royal Chaplain, stood beside the prince. Therijs, the older sister of Havrl, sat on the other side of the bed, her husband Kord behind her. The candelabrum in the room gave soft illumination in the gathering dusk. Besides those five there were no others in the bedchamber. King Vinhaldu stirred, opened his eyes, and reached for his daughter’s hand. The four strained to hear as he turned his head to speak to her.

“Wacix is my witness: Daughter of my youth I bless you. May all your kindnesses be multiplied. On you I bestow the Margravate of Thorne, and elevate your husband to Margrave. May your family and your lands prosper in your keeping.”

Tears filled her eyes. Kord placed a hand gently on her shoulder.

The king turned to Havrl, smiled and took a long breath. “Hear Wacix, I speak the ancient riddle. Discover the answer to the riddle Havrl, and you will have both blessing and peace as king.” After a grimace of pain he spoke again.

With what shall the rift-that-separates be bridged anew?

Seek among the Dimewim for alabaster.

Find there a breaker of alabaster vessels,

One who sheds an alabaster tear.

When you yourself a servant are,

A servant shall be your Queen.

The king closed his eyes, and their vigil continued until just before dawn.

* * *

Two months after the royal funeral, an envoy arrived from the Dimewim requesting an audience with the new king.

Entering the throne room, the ambassador was surprised to see a semi-opaque black curtain obscuring his view of the new king. He saw the silhouette of a man with a crown upon his head. The throne reserved for the queen was empty, as Havrl had yet to marry. “He mourns still,” whispered the court’s official translator. “The curtain expresses that he does not yet seek direct contact with others until his grief is assuaged.”

“Welcome, Ambassador,” greeted the silhouette from behind the curtain.

Bowing flamboyantly the ambassador began, with the interpreter’s assisting, by saying, “Oh king Havrl, lord of the Phranya, master of the northern marches, live forever. I bring you a message of condolence from your brother in mourning and my sovereign, Vhryhab, Emperor of the Dimewim, Chief Mariner of the Eastern Sea, and Protector of the Four Treasures. My Master shares your sorrow, and sends his blessings on your reign.”

“Thank your master for his sentiments,” the voice answered, “I am grateful for his concern, and accept his condolences. May he be blessed in all that pleases the Creator of All.”

“Oh King,” the ambassador continued, bringing now the real message of his mission, “my master wishes that there to be a lasting peace between your people and his empire. He desires to put an end to the enmity that existed between your father and his. May it please you oh king, that Emperor Vhryhab invites you to send a delegation to the royal City of Charnosev to discuss such a lasting covenant.”

“My heart is yet burdened with my loss. Let me think three days on this matter, and I will give you an answer.”

“As the king wishes,” said the ambassador as he bowed his way out of the room.

“Conceit and deceit,” the man on the throne whispered to himself.

* * *

The king, his Prime Minister Lord Perix, Margrave Kord his deputy, and Count Paz, the king’s cousin, walked an hour in the king’s private garden, discussing the Dimewim invitation. At length they sat under the shade of the pear trees beside the reflecting pool. Havrl, in the custom of his people, was schooled in defence and in peace. In the defence of his people, had served as a shield bearer at 14, then as a common soldier, and finally as a leader of a company. When he turned 22 he began his training in the actual administration of the realm. Now, at 27 he found himself as king, and facing a perceived threat from the ancient enemy, the expansionist Dimewim Empire.

“I have heard all of your thoughts. Here is my response,” the young king began. “We will send a delegation as requested, and negotiate in good faith. You, my faithful advisors, will be that delegation,” he smiled crookedly, and Kord caught a familiar mischievous gleam in the king’s eyes, “and two lowly servants will accompany you.”

“And who might they be?” the perceptive Kord questioned.

“Paz and myself,” the king answered evenly. Paz laughed loudly.

“What!” exploded the elderly Lord Perix. He spluttered in consternation, and the king placed a friendly hand on his shoulder, and laughed softly.

“Do not die of apoplexy, my valued friend. I intend to go incognito, as Kord’s servant, with Paz assisting you as your servant. I think that the three of us should make an adequate retinue for such an esteemed diplomat as yourself.”

The old advisor did not accept the flattery well. “But the danger,” he objected. “What if they plan to assassinate us, or worse, discover who you are and hold us hostage?” “And,” he objected, “who will govern in your stead?”

“I am willing to risk all of those eventualities, in search of a stable peace. Despite generations of conflict, no Dimewim king has ever violated a diplomat’s safety. I do not trust the Dimewim’s plans, but I do not fear that kind of betrayal. I suspect that this self-styled emperor simply wants to accomplish by negotiation what his grandfather’s and father’s armies could not accomplish by force.”

“Agreed,” said the Margrave.

“As for governance, Therijs already governs the North Margravate. And, at any rate she is next in line if I die on this incognito journey.”

“How do you plan to accomplish this feat of impersonation?” asked the naturally cautious prime minister.

“That will depend very much on the two of you. Kord should have no trouble bossing me around as his servant.” Kord grimaced as the king dug an elbow into his brother-in-law’s ribs.

“My heart’s desire, sire,” he mocked his slightly older relative.

“And Paz has a strong character. He will not be demeaned by this charade, not in defence of his homeland. Paz and I will not simply act as servants, we shall be your servants. And do not forget, neither the Dimewim envoy nor any other living Dimewat has seen me since I entered the army.”

“Agreed,” was the minister’s reluctant answer.

* * *

The envoy was conducted into the throne room on the third day. Again he addressed the silhouette when spoken to. Prime Minister Perix and Kord the Margrave stood at the bottom of the throne’s steps, in front of the curtain. In his hands Perix held a plain, brass drinking cup.

“Oh king, live forever. What is your pleasure?”

“Return to your master, and tell him that my Prime Minister and the Margrave of Thorne shall be at the Narrows in twenty-four days, and will await an escort there for the royal City of Charnosev. There they are to undertake negotiations and return to me with the treaty for my approval.”

That this Perix advanced. “Take this cup to your sovereign,” said the king, “as a token of peace. My father cast it himself. May King Vhryhab drink from it always in good health.”

“By your command, oh king, I shall bear this good news, and this token, to my master, Vhryhab, Emperor of the Dimewim, Chief Mariner of the Eastern Sea, and Protector of the Four Treasures. May a thousand blessings attend this peace.”

Bowing, he exited the room with seemly decorum.

* * *

Accompanied by a troop of horsemen, the small delegation travelled the ten days to the Gorge of the River Merve. Forming, along with the Tanlak Mountains, the eastern boundary of the Phranya, the lengthy and dangerous Merve Gorge is bridged in only one place, the Narrows.

Their horses resting on the Height of Zizina, the king and his entourage enjoyed the panoramic view. Pierced only here at the Pass of Zizina, running north and south, the Tanlak Mountains stood as a permanent barrier to Dimewim aggression. The gorge itself split the earth from its source high in the mountains until it exited at the Rapids of Pell, devolved into the broad swampy Delta of the Merve, flowing at last into the Eastern Sea. There was no ingress to Phranya here. No Dimewim army had ever successfully negotiated the swamps in the delta; and the minor annual raids by swamp-dwelling bandits were quickly turned back. Below them, on the fertile Plain of the Merve, countless skirmishes had been fought between the Dimewim and the Phranyatii.

The highly arched stone bridge itself, constructed when trade flourished in the time of Havrl’s grandfather’s grandfather, was narrow, and allowed only for the single-file passage of led horses or foot soldiers. Stone towers and a portcullis at the Phranyatii end of the bridge were sufficient to withstand a brief siege. Thus every Dimewim invasion on such a narrow front was limited and ultimately failed. Yet these defeats seemed to embolden the Dimewin. King Havrl, now ‘Pohl’, the servant of Margrave Kord, expected that this treaty invitation was only another ploy in this long hostility.

By the hand of geography, and the design of the bridge, there was no recent commerce, and little diplomacy, encouraged between the two kingdoms, and thus little opportunity for intelligence gathering. The occasional prisoner taken during a war, or in a raid along the delta, was the only source of Dimewim intelligence. The Phranyatii, having no imperial designs on their neighbours, merely kept watch from garrisons in the mountains or along the riverbanks. The information offered, at a price, by the occasional traders who braved the river just above the delta, was usually considered to be deliberate Dimewim misinformation.

As the retinue watched from their height, a column of riders approached the Dimewim side of the bridge, and made camp. Perix instructed the captain of his guard to descend to the plain and alert the garrison of their coming. The diplomatic retinue would follow shortly. On the morrow the diplomats and their ‘servants’ would pass over the bridge into the land of the Dimewim. The small party fed their mounts and pack animals before descending to the plain themselves. As befitted their lesser status, Paz and Pohl brought up the rear, leading the pack animals down the pass.

* * *

At dawn the next day the two diplomats; with their servants, led the animals across the bridge, meeting their Dimewim escort at the other end. An immaculately dressed Dimewim officer stepped forward and bowed graciously to Perix and Kord. An official stood at his side. “I am Duhrsan son of Dravan, Captain of the Emperor’s guard. I have the honour of escorting you to the royal city,” he announced in Dimewat. The official translated into Phranyatii.

To the disappointment of the official, Perix answered in passable Dimewat, “I am Lord Perix, Prime Minister to King Havrl. My assistant is the Margrave Kord, brother-in-law of the king. We will be honoured to accept your escort.”

A troop of lancers took up positions before and behind the four Phranyatii. Led by the captain and the interpreter, they set off towards the royal City of Charnosev. Perix and his party found it strange that they were being led through the Garstan Hills and on to the River Newe. The direct road from the bridge across the Dimewim heartlands was so much shorter. They spent a comfortable night at the ancient Fortress of Wahlt at the pass through the Garstan. At the river the next afternoon they all boarded the Emperor’s personal craft for the two-day journey to the city. The fields along the river were lush from irrigation. The sail was leisurely. Crowds lined the shore, waiving and singing. Several large shrines and temples lined the shore. The Phranyatii delegation held their growing list of questions for a more private environment.

Though the river actually passed the city, the chosen landing stage was a half hour’s ride from the city gates. The route was an avenue of trees irrigated from the river, and the ride was refreshingly cool in the shade. A small guard of lancers stood at each intersecting road from the countryside, dressed ceremoniously, and saluting as the Phranyatii delegation came past. At last the treed avenue gave way to a broad panorama of the city. Walled and sitting on a plateau, the royal city was resplendent in the midday sun. A phalanx of foot soldiers stood at a distance, their shields flashing gold in the noon sun. On the walls facing the avenue flags and streamers fluttered, and regiment after regiment of soldiers marched in a continuous stream atop the walls; each regiment marked by a different banner. At the entrance gate a squadron of lancers formed a guard of honour for the diplomats.

At the gate itself waited a formidable older warrior. He stood up in his stirrups as the delegation approached and announced in Dimewat, “I am Klohlandu, Chief Advisor to Emperor Vhryhab. In his name I welcome you to the royal City of Charnosev. May you find what you seek at the hands of the Emperor.”

With that he led the entourage through the city. Every street had been swept clean. All the windows sported flags and streamers. But no citizens were visible. At the central plaza, facing the royal palace stood a newly constructed temple of ostentatious proportions. Hundreds of priests stood on its steps waving branches of oak leaves and burning incense as the delegation past by. Klohlandu brought them to a small but ornate secondary palace a few streets away from the royal residence and escorted Lord Perix and Margrave Kord inside. The servants saw to the animals, and then carried in the delegates’ baggage.

“Rest and refresh yourselves today. Tomorrow morning you will be introduced to the Emperor. In the evening our delegation, of which I am the chief, will host you at a banquette. The following day we will begin negotiations.”

“That will be most suitable,” said Perix.

“I have provided two household servants to care for your needs. Their steward is called Penn. Whatever you wish you have but to ask her.” With that he took his leave. As the two nobles looked around their suite, and Paz and Pohl unpacked, a knock came on the door.

“Enter,” said Perix.

A tallish young woman entered. Clothed in the dark grey robe of a senior steward, the cowl of which hid most of her face, she bowed formally to the delegates. “I am Penn,” she began in impeccable Phranyatii, “steward of this residence. I welcome you. I have been commanded to provide for your every need. If your servants will accompany me I will show them the kitchen, and where they are to sleep.”

“Thank you Steward Penn,” Kord answered graciously on their behalf. “All Lord Perix and I wish at the moment is water with which to bathe, and some fruit with which to nourish ourselves. Indeed, show our servants where to reside, and they will serve what you provide.”

“My lords,” she said as she bowed her way out of the room. Silently Paz and Pohl followed her out. Kord smiled briefly at Lord Perix, and then went out into the garden. ‘Was it deliberate’, he asked himself, ‘that water and fruit were not already hospitably set out for us?’

Some time later Pohl came in carrying two buckets of hot water for the laver. Paz followed with a bowl of fruit and a carafe of spiced wine. Pohl filled the laver, and the two stewards washed the feet of the delegates, much to everyone’s silent amusement. They had not checked the rooms, and did not yet know if they were being spied upon. After washing and changing, Perix said loudly enough for any listener, “We wish to relax in the garden. Bring the fruit and wine there.” Pohl and Paz bowed in acknowledgement and did as they were bid. Kord had already reconnoitred the garden and chosen an area he felt was most private. He and Perix strolled aimlessly, until they reached that area. The four sat closely and held their first free discussion.

“As we would expect,” began the senior diplomat, “everything we have seen has been carefully staged for our benefit. Why we were taken through the mountains, and not across the centre of the land I do not fathom.”

“To hide something,” surmised Kord. “An assembling army perhaps?”

“The carefully organized troops and singing citizens were meant to impress us, not welcome us,” commented Paz. “The more they show us the more they hide.”

“Have you heard any street noises since we entered this house?” queried Pohl. They shook their heads. “No wagons rumbling, no carts clattering, no conversations murmuring above the walls. Only silence,” he observed.

“Not even birds in the garden,” observed Kord. “Something is indeed amiss.”

“As servants, Paz and I may have more opportunities to observe than the two dignitaries.”

“You will certainly eat and sleep better than we,” Paz griped good-humouredly.

“Meaning?” questioned Kord.

“Meaning - this is a poor house, for all its obvious affluence. The water and wine are kept under lock and key. Your food was taken from one pantry. I glanced quickly into another, and found it almost bare. The two household servants are both withdrawn and anxious. Many rooms we passed were closed and locked. And the garden has only recently been tended. Some of these bushes are too woody by half to have been under the continuing care of a gardener. And our quarters are in the stable, not with the household servants. Presumably, so that we can’t have easy contact with them.”

“We had best return to the suite,” suggested Pohl. Perix and Kord resumed their stroll through the extensive garden, as the servants took the wine and fruit back into the suite. Then, slowly, carefully, they searched all the walls, alcoves and curtains for peepholes or listening posts. They both concluded that if there were any, they were too well concealed. The hedge in the garden was perhaps the best location for conversations.

* * *

The next morning, while Lord Perix and Margrave Kord were conducted to the royal palace for an audience with the emperor, Paz and Pohl stayed behind, to clean the suite, attend to the animals, and gather more information. Pohl went in search of the steward Penn, while Paz, who spoke some Dimewat, went looking for the two household servants. Pohl found her at the steward’s desk in the alcove off the entrance hall. He observed that she remained hooded at all times, whereas the other household servants only wore their cowls up when performing formal duties. It reminded him that as free persons, Phranyatii servants wore no cowls.

“Greetings, Honoured Steward,” he began genuinely as he walked up to the entry of the alcove.

She raised her head only slightly from her work. “How may I assist the servant of the Margrave?” she enquired dryly.

Pohl fabricated a reason for his presence. “My master requested that I extend his thanks for the meals you have provided.”

“I will tell Tuhrbal and Mivwe that their cooking is appreciated,” she answered noncommittally. “It is my duty to see to the welfare of the delegates. They are the Emperor’s personal guests.”

“Whose house is this?” Pohl asked.

“It is one of the Emperor’s houses. If you do not mind, I have duties to perform…”, she concluded dismissively.

Pohl ignored her dismissal. “How is it that you speak Phranyatii?”

“And how do you know Dimewat?” She countered coldly.

In politeness, he ignored her tone and answered, “A Dimewin prisoner served in the household in which I was a child. He taught me. He was a brave and honest man.”

She thawed, ever so slightly. “I was taught by a Phranyatii woman captured in a raid by delta bandits. She was very old when I knew her. She was very kind, and I learned much from her.” Her voice drained away.

“Another question if I may?”

“What?” The hardness returned.

“My name is Pohl, the servant of Margrave Kord, and Lord Perix’ servant is named Paz. Are we allowed out of the house while we are here? May we go to the marketplace to shop for our masters?”

“There is no need for you to go to the market place, all is provided for you here. You may attend your masters wherever they go. That is all.” She sat back in her ornate chair, and appraised him. “Tell, me,” she enquired, “how long have you been in Margrave Kord’s service? He is older than you, is he not?”

“I served as his shield bearer when I was 14, and I have been bound closely to his family ever since” was his deft answer. “I am grateful that he choose me to attend him on this journey.”

“You have fought against the Dimewim?”

“I defended my homeland, yes.”

“Why are your people so stubborn?” she asked with some pain in her voice.

“Stubborn?” He guessed her meaning. “To resist aggression is a virtue. Stubbornness is a weakness. We prize our independence. We have no hate for the Dimewim. Our legends say that many generations ago we were close friends. Indeed, ancient Dimewim poetry and music are still greatly prized among our people; and I see that your architecture carries many styles of our’s.”

She changed the subject. “Will your delegates accept a peace treaty?”

“Yes, I believe so, if it is an honest one that advantages both sides. At any rate, the final decision belongs to King Havrl.”

“What manner of man is he?” Penn asked.

“I am Margrave Kord’s servant, honoured steward,” he stalled.

“The servant of the king’s brother-in-law must have an opinion…or you are a dolt,” she mocked him.

“Then a dolt I must be,” he rejoined firmly, “because I will not pass judgement on the king.”

“Perhaps you are wise,” she observed. Changing the subject again she asked, “How are your mounts faring in our modest stables?”

“I haven’t asked them personally, Steward Penn,” he replied mischievously, “but I suspect they would rather be running free on the well watered plains of Dimewim than couped up here in their stalls.”

“They are better off where they are,” she answered cryptically. “I suggest that you prepare your master’s clothing for tonight’s banquette. And attend to your own attire; for you must wait upon your own master tonight in the presence of the Emperor.”

“As you advise,” he responded with a meagre departing bow. He then went in search of Paz.

* * *

Penn sat brooding the rest of the morning. There was nothing in the Emperor’s plan of which she approved. Yet she was attempting to be loyal. Still, she was less than half convinced that his plans could succeed. If indeed he had revealed his true plans to her. She brooded over the condition of her people, and brooded too over the man, Pohl. She could identify nothing in particular about him that attracted her. He was, after all, a Phranyatii and a servant. But of course not a servant as in Dimewat society. She knew that in the Phranyatii culture the personal servants of nobles were minor nobility themselves. He intrigued her. And that bothered her. Bothered her more that it was in this particular context, the context of artificial peace negotiations.

She brooded also on the state of the people. In the five years of his reign the emperor had managed to impoverish the people with high taxes, empty the exchequer, and waste valuable resources on his newly adopted, and totally unwholesome god, Karpinque. Over the years Dimewim had lost every incursion it had staged into Phranya. Realistically, there was no way of extending the empire; such as it was, to the west by military means. That left the Eastern Sea Peoples. Vhryhab had embraced their cruel and savage god of war, Karpinque, as a prelude to political and commercial dominance over the archipelago of the powerful sea peoples.

He had gone on a building spree, erecting temples to Karpinque all over the empire. Engineers and craftsmen of the sea people were imported to design the temples, but it was the Dimewat people who supplied the labour. Fields and flocks were neglected in Vhryhab’s mad pursuit of his plans. Agricultural production dropped, and hunger stalked some villages. Then, last year, a drought had devastated Dimewim’s main farming regions. Want turned to famine. Still the temple building continued.

Surely, Penn thought, the sea people had seen through Vhryhab’s religious ploy? They were raking in the wealth, and he was not increasing his hold over them. His suzerainty was a sham, and his empire hollow. The land became a net importer of food. And so, back swung his policies to the enemy of his father’s fathers, the Phranyatii. What he could not steal by war, he would try to take by trickery.

She was in a quandary. Surely, Penn thought, he will fail, and the failure will destroy our people. ‘Our people.’ They were her people. She had worked to succour them, but it was never enough. Her elder brother, Vhryhab, and his closets allies, Lord Klohlandu and Count Durbo, were too powerful for her to effectively interfere. She was too young, just int

© Copyright 2018 James Gagiikwe. All rights reserved.

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