Prose Header

Why We Fight

by Elaine Graham-Leigh

part 3 of 4

Syet went along the side of the kitchen garden, past the bakehouse and the blafin sheds, and in at the yard door. Andara, Teris’ wife, was settled into her usual seat, nearest the hearth on the women’s side, spinning a skein of blafin wool with the virtuous air that had irritated Syet since the day she met her.

Behind her, Syet’s daughter Elit was staring into the glow of the heater, a bowl of half-ground herb paste tipping over in her lap. As the door swung to, Andara looked up, dropped the distaff, and scowled. ‘Bain’t no need of Gargarin, way you slam that door.’

When Syet first came, she would have snapped back at her, but over the long cycles of her marriage she had learned different. She kept her voice level. ‘We’ve had word.’

There was a clatter as Elit dropped the pestle on the floor. It would usually have been enough for a rebuke, but only a slight wince showed that Andara had heard it at all. Her lips thinned, and spread into what on someone else would have been a smile. ‘I’d best fetch Teris, then’ she said.

The house of Teris’ folk had been the biggest in the village even before the extension when Teris’ eldest son Padrig married Isil, but when all Teris’ sons and his brothers’ children were there, the household could still crowd the hearthroom.

Teris settled himself on the men’s side of the hearth, in the great carved chair that one of his ancestors, generations ago, had built from wood saved from the sea. He stretched his boots towards the heater, seemingly oblivious to the eyes of the household watching him. A whisp of steam curled from one toe. In Isil’s arms, the baby whimpered, once, and was still.

‘So, Brother’s Wife’ Teris said at last. He had called his brother’s first wife ‘Sister’, but he had never given the more honourable title to Syet. ‘Tell us all again.’

Syet nodded. ‘Targil from over Gensta cluster was here. He said they had word from a trader from right over beyond Raset, he said, and he said they’d had it from a woman who’d had it right from the Secret Ones theyselves. They say...’

Syet had already told Targil’s message twice, but now, round the crowded hearth she found herself slipping into a chanting rhythm, like the beginning of a song. The Song of the Words of the Secret Ones, organising revolt from half a world away.

‘They say that the tide be rising. The tide be rising, like it rose in our fathers’ day and in their fathers’ before ’em. The tide be rising, and on eighth day it will break on Olbe’Se with all the waters of the seas and no dyke will hold it back.’

‘Eighth day,’ Teris repeated. Behind him, the young men rumbled their approval. ‘They take our seas, tax us, spy on us, turn our priests into theirs, to make us work how they tell us, then they want us to fight for them, like the debt were ours to pay. But on eighth day we show they bastards they’re wrong. Brother’s Wife, did Targil say where he were going next?’

Syet spread her hands. ‘No, he were going home, I think. He said it’s for us to raise the rest of the cluster.’

‘So.’ Teris stood up, shooting his chair back into Syet’s eldest son’s legs. He ignored his yelp of protest. ‘Feros, get down to Jarvin’s, tell him to get across to Yana, tonight, and tell them to get word onto Chandra and Issich. If you need, you can remind him he’s two catches behind with his sail debt, and I’ll have that boat back from him in the morning if he don’t. Padrig, you and Handar take the small boat over to Selte, the same.’

‘Yes, father. What’ll we tell ’em?’

‘Eighth day’ Teris said again. He rolled the words around his mouth, tasting them, and it seemed to Syet that he was taller than usual, his shoulders rising above the circle of the light as if they could burst the ceiling. ‘Eighth day in Olbe’Se, so that means from this cluster we leave in two days’ time. Tell ’em midnight, in two days’ time. Felin.’ He looked round for Syet’s stepson. ‘You and Elit go round everyone here, make sure they know to muster here, two hours before midnight.’

‘Two hours before? Why?’

‘There’s the guns to get from the priest, for one thing, and there’s that new temple. Seems to me, it would make a fine brazier to warm the sailing, and there’s plenty like to see it burn.’ His face split into a rare grin. ‘I know I do!’ And they laughed with him.

The young men were jostling off on their errands now; Feros boasting about what he was going to do to Jarvin, Padrig teasing Handar about a girl on Selte he was supposed to have his eye on, Felin, full of importance at his own mission, pretending not to notice his adoring half-sister following him out. Andara already had the door of the store cupboard open.

Syet took her place beside her, sorting through the packets in the shifting glow of the heater, red and yellow like the new temple in flames. Andara started to lecture her on dried fish and she found her thoughts wandering, out of the house and up the path to the old temple. The priest would be probably opening his beer cask about now. She could see him pouring himself a mug; carrying it to his cell; sitting, holding it in his hands, content. Oblivious.

There was a look he had sometimes, when he thought no one was watching him; a gentle expression, behind the temple-trained mask of his face. It wasn’t that she would do anything to stop it, nor that she would regret any of it, but in the midst of the preparations and the gladness, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for the priest.

* * *

The first that Vinal knew about the revolt was the pounding on the door. He hadn’t been back to the village since he’d talked to Syet, though he’d kept meaning to mention the stranger and Jorges’ comment in his next report.

That evening, he’d only had two mugs of the herb beer, and it was the weaker brew, all that was left after the raid. Well, maybe three. But he hadn’t been drunk.

He’d been trying to read from a cube he’d got from the carrier last season, a treatise on the materiality of the universe. Lintud had told him it was very good; the author, a priest a little younger than Vinal, an up-and-coming man. He had meant to read it — if he was ever going to get back to the temple, he had to keep up with the theological debates — but his eyes bounced off the screen, as if there were a clear wall between him and the sense. He’d been letting the text scroll down, repeating snatches to himself as though they meant something, when he heard them outside.

He heard boots, heavy on the front steps, and a voice: ‘Ser Priest!’

A rumbling murmur behind it, like the flood tides the old men talked about, rising far out at sea. In his village, when he was a child, they said every wave knew your name, and when they called you, there was nowhere you could run. You couldn’t hide from the flood.

‘Come out, Ser Priest!’

He opened the door.

Teris was standing on the temple porch. At his side were two of the other clan heads and a younger man Vinal thought was one of his sons. At the bottom of the steps a crowd of villagers shifted and muttered, a dark mass swaying beneath a red sky. There was a strong smell of burning.

Teris spoke. ‘We come for they weapons, Ser Priest.’

He had his hand out, as if he thought the priest could summon them out of the air for him. Vinal stared at him. Could he bar the door, get to the weapons first, fight them off? Kill them? He’d never fired a rifle in his life.

He caught a phantom movement out of the corner of his eye: Alternative Vinal appearing beside him, swathed in scarlet, waiting for him to speak. He could have dealt with this.

‘What do you want them for?’ His voice, absurdly high, quavered on the last word. There was a snigger, and someone shouted, ‘We be going to Olbe’Se, Ser Priest. What did you think?’

‘I can’t...’ He couldn’t get it out, could only speak quietly; surely they couldn’t hear him. ‘I can’t let you do that.’

Alternative Vinal shook his head in disgust. The crowd cheered, derisive. Teris took a step forward. ‘You be going to give us they weapons, Ser Priest’ he said. ‘You’re not a fool, so this be what you be going to do.’

Vinal licked his lips. Alternative Vinal loomed at him from behind Teris’ shoulder, scorn lapping across his face like waves. He saw himself defying them, refusing them, barring the door and daring them to do their worst. He saw himself on his knees, bleeding, pleading, while they kicked him aside.

He pushed the door open, banging it back so hard the handle gouged a cut down the stone wall. ‘Be my guests,’ he said.

He watched from the temple porch as they handed the weapons out. There were more villagers there now, older women and young people as well as the older men, and there was laughter, and singing, and shouts about who was going in whose boat; villagers dancing and skirling in swirls of colour as bright as the pictures on the temple walls.

Vinal stood alone on the porch and tasted the ash of his new temple on his tongue.

They were beginning to drift away when he saw Syet approach in a knot of village wives heading up the path away from the village. As she reached the bottom of the steps, she hesitated, stopped for a moment looking up at him. ‘Why don’t you come too? Bain’t no harm in watching.’

Alternative Vinal glowered at her, flicking his robe to show what he thought of that suggestion. She stood with her head on one side, half-smiling, as if she could see him and didn’t care. Threads of triumphant song drifted up from the path to the village and swirled around the porch.

Vinal meant to turn away, retreat alone into his ravished temple and close the door. He was imagining himself doing that when he heard his voice agreeing, and saw his feet start down the steps towards her.

The path wound round behind the temple precinct and up through the trees. Syet went on ahead of him, followed the lights carried by the other women where they bobbed in and out of the leaves. His feet were slipping on the crushed ferns of the path, tree branches and fronds slapping in his face.

He could turn back, he thought, go back to the temple and pretend he had never left it. Even without the lights it was not so dark he couldn’t get back. It was a clear night and the stars were visible, and the brighter rings of light that were the warships, far out in space. He kept walking.

At the top of the slope, the trees gave way to a field of short ferns, overlooking the sea. The women spread out along the cliff edge. They held their lights up. Out on the sky, above the dark on dark masses of the islands, more lines of lights appeared, as if the whole cluster were edged in stars.

Vinal stood beside Syet, a little apart from the others. It was ridiculous, his being here. What was it, some peasant ritual? Some superstitious good luck charm, as if the universe was a god to whom you could appeal? His feet were getting wet. Any moment now, they would all turn round and laugh at him.

‘You know there’s no point, don’t you?’ he said to Syet. He meant it to be a dispassionate assessment, but he couldn’t keep sullenness out of his tone. ‘This rebellion, uprising, whatever you call it. You’ll go to Olbe’Se, some of you will be hurt, maybe killed, some of you may be punished, later, and for what? You think the governor will recall ships to protect us, that the Chi’me will leave just because you ask them to? You all know they won’t. So why fight, when you know you can’t win?’

He stopped. The sea whispered against the base of the cliff. Syet was staring seawards, up the channel between them and the next island, and when he followed her gaze he saw a white glow along the horizon, studded with black dots.

One of the women started to sing, a song in a dialect so old he could hardly understand it, and the others joined in. As they sang, the dots grew larger and larger; they were boats, now, coming steadily down the channel with the song drawing them on.

Fishing boats, transport boats, coracles unstrapped from the roof beams where they were kept for the floods, they filled the channel, flotilla after flotilla stretching back to the horizon and beyond. The women’s song surrounded the islands and the people on the boats were cheering, waving stolen weapons, laughing.

The women were laughing too now, dancing, skirling round arm in arm as the rebels went on by beneath them; sailing to Olbe’Se in white light.

Syet turned to Vinal, the torches shining in her eyes. ‘You see? You see, now?’

She grabbed his hand. He wanted to say no, he didn’t; but then she was kissing him, falling with him onto the ferns, and he couldn’t say anything at all.

* * *

Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2009 by Elaine Graham-Leigh

Home Page