Why We Fight
by Elaine Graham-Leigh
No one said anything to Syet about her and the priest on the sailing night. She caught Andara watching her speculatively from time to time, but that was all. She thought of him when she was mending the nets with the other women on the quay, hearing how the rebels had fired the governor’s office and papers in their thousands had fluttered down like burning rain, when she was scanning the horizon for the boats coming home. She didn’t see him.
They all knew he was still up there, in the old temple, but he didn’t try to come down and no one was going to go up. She wondered what he was doing, if his provisions were low, if he had reported back to his head temple and named them all. If he was lonely.
The boats came back in ones and twos: the Secret Ones’ instructions had been for them to scatter once they left the capital. Teris got the biggest boat home with its sail hanging in tatters from the broken mast, and his son Handar and Syet’s stepson Felin bailing out seawater all the way from the next cluster because of the holes in the side.
They’d mislaid Syet’s son Feros in Olbe’Se harbour, but they were sure he was fine. When he turned up two days later, filthy, exhausted and cheerful, he clearly had no idea how convinced she’d been that he was dead.
All told, the village had ten injured, two boats sunk and a line in the longest song of the rebellion, calling them ‘Valiant sons of Ham,’ which pleased everyone very much.
The day after Feros got back, Teris, stretched out in his chair after dinner, passed judgement. ‘It were a good rebellion, good as the ones my father talked about.’
The boys behind him cheered. ‘We showed them!’ Feros, Syet noted with an inward sigh, still had grimy streaks over his face where he hadn’t washed properly. ‘We showed those bastards!’
Andara grimaced at the volume. ‘Not at the hearth, thank you. Husband, have you had any word on what they governor be going to do? Have they come for anyone yet?’
Teris spread his hands. ‘Not save them as were taken in Olbe’Se. Not to say they won’t try, mind, but we’ll be ready for ’em. Don’t you be worrying about it.’
‘I’ll suppose they’ll have the priest send ’em our names?’
‘Aye, I expect so.’ Teris eyed his wife warily. ‘What be you thinking? If it’s violence against that fool priest, I won’t have it. We’ll face ’em down if they come here; we don’t need to add priest killing to the tally.’
‘No, of course not, Husband.’ Her expression was demure. ‘And I don’t call for priest killing any more than you. But still, wouldn’t it be better if we could stop ’em coming at all? We could.’
‘That priest will be sending our names to the temple, won’t he? So all we have to do is persuade him not to.’
‘Aye, right. But how? He’s not likely to anger his bosses just because we ask him, not after we burnt his temple an’all.’
‘No, indeed, Husband.’ Andara’s voice became silky with malice. She smiled. ‘But he might if Syet asks him. She’s got very close to the priest.’
Handar sniggered, ‘Yeah, very close’, then stopped as Feros and Felin protested. ‘That’s our mother you’re talking of!’
Ignoring the argument boiling behind him, Teris regarded Syet. His expression reminded her of the fisherman in the story, who was about to throw back a small, useless fish when it spat up a gem into his hand.
‘Well? Will you speak to the priest?’
Syet knew it wasn’t really a question. ‘Of course.’
Teris’ gaze relaxed into benevolence. ‘Thank you, Sister.’
* * *
Vinal sat on a block in the ruins of the new temple. Rain dripped steadily from the unroofed walls, soaking the piles of charred rafters and spreading in puddles over the floor. On the ledge above the doorway, a skeema was building a nest. He watched Alternative Vinal as he stalked insubstantial in front of him, kicking at stones and sneering. It had been peaceful, in the revolt. He hadn’t had to think.
He had tried both screens when he’d got back from the headland and there had been nothing but static on both of them. Before, when the communications network had been down, it had maddened him. Without his line to the temple, to the real world, the Chi’me and the stars, he had not been able to ignore how he felt in the village, like he was sewn into a coat too small for him ever to fit. This time, though, whenever his eyes had drifted to the screens, all he’d seen there was Syet.
He’d managed to eke out his food supplies, the first time since he’d come that he’d fasted, and at the proper time he’d danced the New Star Dance on the headland in the rain from beginning to end. When he’d stepped the circle out and thrown his arms up, the chant had spun out into the wet night like a net, catching him and the universe together, and he’d felt like a priest from the old days, before the great temple was even thought of, living wild on a hilltop, dancing his mind among the stars, free.
The temple had finally been in touch that morning. Not a personal communication, no encouraging talk with Lintud to raise his spirits, make him feel that he could win his recall to Olbe’Se if he tried. Presumably they were too busy for that. It was just a written command, to every village temple, to every priest the same.
He’d thought as he woke up that morning that the light was different, something was different. He’d seen the screen was shining purple instead of grey static, and there it was, waiting for him.
The revolt, it said, had been put down. They had tried to disrupt the war effort, to overthrow the government by force of arms, and they had failed, as such attempts would always fail. The damage to the great temple had only been slight, and would be swiftly repaired.
In the meantime, all priests were to prepare and submit lists of those who participated in the revolt from their areas, particularly the ringleaders, so that at some future date, when the necessary resources could be diverted from the war, they could be dealt with appropriately.
Appropriately. He could draw up the list. He’d seen that night who was going, and it would be easy enough to check. He could tell them about the stranger he’d seen in the village, the comment Jorges had made when he’d shown his pupils the drama; they could work out how it had been organised, stop it from happening again.
It would go on his record, somewhere in the temple archives. A little star, perhaps, beside his name: a useful man, a man who has repented his mistake. A man who could find himself in the great temple once again.
Alternative Vinal stopped in front of him. He could do it. They had burnt his temple, humiliated him, laughed at him. He could do it. He should.
But... appropriately. Such a calm word for such a multitude of deaths.
Alternative Vinal shrugged. They were just peasants, what did he care? Why should Vinal think their lives mattered more than his? But then Vinal had been a peasant too, once, hadn’t he? Did he think he could be one again? Here? He could try that, if that was what he wanted.
Alternative Vinal spread his hands wide, scarlet sleeves flowing over the rain. He could have all this, if he wanted. He could join the defeated, if they would have him. He could sit alone in his ruined temple, while they laughed at him. He, Alternative Vinal, thought he was worth better. But if that was what he wanted...
‘Oh, stop it!’ Vinal shouted. ‘Stop it!’
The sound echoed off the stone. The skeema flapped off with an affronted squawk. Alternative Vinal shrugged again and turned to inspect one of the window arches. Vinal buried his head in his hands. He wanted a beer.
Footsteps splashed on the wet floor. He raised his head and saw Syet picking her way through the puddles towards him.
‘I were going up to the temple, but I thought I heard you’ she said. ‘What be you doing in here?’
Vinal snorted, bitterly. ‘Communing. Ha, yes, that’s what I’m doing here. It’s the only place I have in this village, so I’m communing with it. Even if you did burn it down.’ He tipped his chin up, trying to sound dignified. ‘It’s best done alone, so you can go, now.’
Syet took a seat on a broken column. ‘So what do your communing tell you?’
‘That I’m shunned. That I can’t stay here, but the channel back to Olbe’Se’s not an easy one. If I sail it, I’ll look down and find I’m sailing on blood. Others’ blood...’ He stopped himself.
Syet must have heard the panic cracking in his voice, but she gave no sign of it. ‘Aye. Well. Sometimes there don’t seem a good choice, do there? Keep your place in the household, help your children, if only you’ll seduce someone into something they shouldn’t do. Seems like if they be the only answers, you have to ask the question again.’
‘It’s not as if I have a choice,’ Vinal went on. ‘There’s no free priests any more, no songs, no dancing on the headland. The only place for me is Olbe’Se, and if I have to swim through blood to get back there, then that’s what I’ll have to do. Anything else is an illusion. Just...’ He remembered the touch of the night air, the smell of the ferns in the rain. From his place by the window, Alternative Vinal spread his hands. ‘Just an illusion.’
Syet arched her eyes, quizzically. ‘I remember dancing on the headland. I remember dancing with you.’
He felt himself blushing. ‘That was different. That was...’
‘That were a dream, ’cause if it were real, you’d have to fight for it, and it be easier not to, bain’t it? It be simpler to give up, go back to your temple, give ’em our names so you can give ’em yourself. Some of us think there has to be a better way. Some of us fight.’
‘But you lose!’ It was almost a howl. ‘You fight and you lose, so how does that change anything except make it worse? What good is that to me?’
‘Be that what you think? That we lose?’ She got up, splashed across the floor to the block beside him. ‘You saw us on the sailing night. Do you think that be losing? It bain’t some game, Vinal.’
She’d never called him by his name before; not even on the headland, where she hadn’t called him anything at all. Alternative Vinal was standing in front of him now, waving his arms, grimacing.
When Vinal spoke, it sounded muffled to himself, as if it was coming from underwater. ‘It doesn’t matter. I still can’t be here. You don’t want me here.’
‘In the old days, before the Chi’me or the great temple, there were always a priest in a village. Who d’you think did the dances, kept the stars in their place? You can be here if you want to be. If you don’t send the names, what can they do to you? There’s nothing stopping you being here, except you. You just have to use the power you have. And stay.’
She held out her hand. Alternative Vinal leaned across the block between them, filling Vinal’s vision so that everything he saw was curtained in an apparition of scarlet. Her hand where it lay palm upwards was rough and seamed, with one half-healed scar across the middle where a fish knife must have slipped. Her fingers curled up like flower petals.
She smiled at him. ‘So?’
No, cried Alternative Vinal. No. You need to be in the great temple. Don’t throw it away. Don’t...
‘So’ said Vinal. He reached out through the fading red and took her hand.
* * *
The Chi’me Travellers’ Gazeteer (section 5: Teyro and Betasarna, 44th version, cycle 1852) advises the would-be traveller that Teyro is now largely free from Gargarin raids, since the success of the Chi’me fleet’s Shuttle Defence Strategy. Teina Cluster, it says, holds much of interest for visitors interested in primitive cultures and has some excellent examples of traditional architecture. The village called The Place of Ham’s People is without great distinction, since so many of the village houses have been rebuilt recently in rather fire-stained stone, but its temple, outside the village in the traditional way, has some ancient paintings worth viewing.
The illustration accompanying it is of one of the rear panels, showing a picture of a channel between two islands, filled with hundreds of boats. It’s night — the islands are dark in an indigo sea — and the only illumination comes from the torches on the boats and the smaller points of light along the cliffs.
There isn’t anything to explain what it means, or when it happened. The gazetteer says that such traditional pictures are often folklore, and never happened at all. But on the wall of the temple the boats go on sailing, sailing to Olbe’Se in white light.
Copyright © 2009 by Elaine Graham-Leigh