Methven - Day Thirteen - Part Four
"En garde, Mr. Wilde."
I brought my blade up to touch Læ's and we resumed our exchange.
She attacked with a compound move, feinting to my right in quarte, then disengaging in a sweep to beat her forte against my foible in quinte from my left. I parried with a glissade to a semi-bind in quarte, forcing her saber up and to my left.
I intended to body-check her. In sport fencing, that's highly illegal, but there was no hint of sport in the kind of match she was trying to prepare me for, and I wanted her to know that was a lesson I'd managed to learn.
Instead, she enveloped my attack in a circular motion that swept my blade away and threw me completely off-balance. I was already committed to my attempt at a body check and had too much momentum to stop myself. As I stumbled past her, she stepped delicately out of my way, turning to jab me firmly in the right kidney with the blunted point of her sword.
"Ow! That hurt!"
"I cannot imagine why, Mr. Wilde."
With a growl, I lunged at her, passata-soto, one hand on the ground, my point aimed at her navel.
She leaned aside, avoiding my attack, spun and kicked me in the head.
Suddenly, I found myself flat on my back, looking up at the Methven sky.
"Well, that didn't work out the way I planned."
"Indeed not, Mr. Wilde. Actions taken in anger rarely do."
She offered me her hand and I took it, letting her pull me to my feet. She did it effortlessly.
"You are welcome."
I massaged the lump on my temple where she'd booted me.
"Do you mind if we take a breather?"
"As you like."
A few moments passed in silence, while I rubbed my collection of bruises. Between Læ's fencing lessons and Mahatna's method of getting my attention earlier in the afternoon, I was amassing quite an assortment.
"So, what's the word on Mantami?"
"The Mothers have determined that he is, indeed, of the Khasim bloodline. Beyond that..it is difficult to say."
"An excellent question, Mr. Wilde. Unfortunately, it is one to which I do not have an equally good answer."
"Meaning what, exactly?"
"Would that I knew, Mr. Wilde. I can tell you only that there has been a change in the quality of my relationship with the Mothers--and that that change has not been for the better."
"Oh? I thought you were all buddy-buddy with the Moms."
She gazed past me.
"At one time I was, indeed, 'all buddy-buddy' with the Mothers, as you say. Sadly, that relationship appears to have changed."
"Since last I visited Khasim Clanhome, several of the senior Mothers to whom I was closest have died. The women who have taken their places are, to put it diplomatically, significantly less accepting of non-Vomisa influences than were their predecessors."
"In other words, they don't like outsiders."
"Like us, for instance?"
"And what does that mean for Mantami?"
"I wish I knew, Mr. Wilde. I wish I knew."
. . .
Our fencing drill lasted another couple of hours. I managed to add a few more welts and contusions to my portfolio without noticeably improving my swordsmanship in the process. I was more than ready to join the stream of Vomisa heading for dinner when Læ finally called a halt to our labors.
We made our collective way to the same table in the far corner of the main dining room that we'd occupied the previous night. That was fine by me, since it was near the kitchen.
I was hungry enough to eat a tacht, no ketchup. Luckily for me, the menu for the evening was a tad more appetizing than that.
I recognized the g'soht and tchofik from the feast that Bruno had prepared the night we first met Natasi's Rangers. I guessed that ikka was out of season, since there wasn't any in evidence, but that was okay, because there were bowls full of various other exotic fruits at both ends of our table. We were also served two kinds of soup--one thin and vinegary, the other thick and savory--and five different entrees, along with a flat kind of bread that reminded me of pizza with the toppings blended into the crust. There were no less than a dozen side dishes and I had at least a taste of each of them. It was all delicious and I ate until I thought I couldn't pack away another bite.
Naturally, that was just about the time the children who acted as our servers brought out heaping plates of pale-blue, intensely sweet, dense cakes. I couldn't very well insult the pastry chef, so I washed a couple of those down with three cups of s'lyme.
By then, I was really was ready to explode. I felt like a beached whale.
Læ chose that moment to rap her spoon against her goblet.
"Gentlemen, if I might have your attention?"
We gave it to her.
"Firstly, please be aware that, from hence forth, we shall gather in front of the Clanhome to practice our martial skills each day at noon."
There was a half-hearted chorus of groans.
Læ flashed a tight smile.
"At some time in the near future, we shall again be in a position to turn our attention to our mission. It simply would not do to permit ourselves to go soft in the meantime--and some of you are far from expert archers and swordsmen even now."
I exchanged glances with Bill at that. After all, she was talking about us.
"I am not entirely without sympathy for your reluctance. You may therefor use the morning hours to amuse yourselves as you see fit. We will drill together in the afternoons and in the evenings we will attend as a group the Mothers' assizes and Khasim Clanhome's communal story sings."
There was nothing half-hearted about the chorus of groans that greeted that announcement. We all remembered sitting through the endless Vomisa caterwauling the night we'd met up with Natasi and his Rangers. Their so-called singing was bad enough, but the fact that it was all in Vomisa--a language none of us Earthfolk understood--made it downright unbearable.
Læ waited us out.
"I understand that Vomisa musical idioms may not be quite to your tastes. However, just as our hosts are duty-bound to extend their hospitality to us, we, in turn, are obligated to display our gratitude to them. And we will do so. Do I make myself clear, gentlemen?"
We grumbled our grudging assent.
Læ favored us with another of her thousand-watt smiles.
"Thank you. I was certain I could depend on you."
She stood, brushing the crumbs off her Robin Hood outfit.
"Shall we make our way to the gathering hall, then?"
. . .
The main hall of the Clanhome was already starting to fill up when we entered. The first row was still empty, so I started to sit down in it.
Bruno grabbed me by the arm before my butt hit the bench.
"Nix on the front-row seats, Drewsie. They're reserved. We're one row back."
It didn't seem worth arguing about, so I shrugged and moved back a row.
The room quickly filled with Vomisa--mostly adults, although I noticed that a couple of naked children parked themselves in that first row. The hum of conversation built to a respectable roar as the audience filtered in and the room was soon packed with bodies. I don't know whether it was due to courtesy or standoffishness, but, while everyone else was packed like pickled herring, we outlanders were actually accorded a modest amount of elbow room.
Just about the time I began to fidget, nine women, all wearing garlands of wildflowers (and nothing else, of course) and carrying staves entered from a door at the far left of the hall.
The place went dead silent.
The women were obviously the Clanhome's Mothers. Only two of them were what I'd call elderly. The rest were certainly past the bloom of girlhood, but they were a long way from being crones. I recognized Atanami, the woman who had greeted us in the Clanhome's name the previous night, among them. To my surprise, I also recognized Akavasi, the woman who'd led Pith and me to Mahatna's cabin earlier in the day and the two women she'd been sitting with when I first approached her. The Mothers silently mounted the stairs to the wooden stage that was set above the doors that led into the refectory and took their seats along the long, elaborately-carved table it held.
I'd been surprised to see Akavasi and I was stunned to see her take the center chair--the one sculpted in the form of a rampant tacht. The woman I'd so casually asked for directions that afternoon was clearly the senior Mother--the most powerful single person in Khasim Clanhome.
Without any preliminary ceremony, Akavasi struck the butt of her staff against the stage floor and spoke in the Traders' Tongue.
"As a courtesy to our guests, all who appear before us here tonight will speak in the Tongue of the Traders. Now let those who have business before the Mothers of Clan Khasim make their voices heard."
A pair of Vomisa men who were sitting in the first row of benches stood up. One of them had loaned a favorite fishing rod to the other, who'd broken it trying to free his hook from a snag. The fishing pole's owner wasn't satisfied with the quality of the replacement he'd been offered.
Akavasi ruled without consulting the other Mothers, directing the original rod's owner to accept the proffered substitute. She explained her decision succinctly:
"A pole of high quality would not have broken."
The next few cases were almost equally pedestrian.
The first one revolved around which of two men was the rightful inheritor of an elaborately-carved walking staff. When neither party could produce documentation of his claim, Akavasi ordered the object in question to be busted up and used as firewood.
The next case involved two women who'd been working on a tapesty. The younger one, Otari, claimed the older woman had ripped out and re-done work she'd spent a full day stitching. At first, the older woman, whose name was Itami, tried to deny having altered the tapesty, but, after several experts testified that Otari didn't have the skill the finished stitching showed, she changed her story.
"Otari's work was badly done. If I had not replaced it, it would have ruined the tapestry."
This time, Akavasi consulted with the other Mothers before issuing her ruling.
"Otari will be permitted to re-do her part of the tapesty. As punishment for your action in changing her work, she will also be permitted to re-do your part of the tapestry. And, as punishment for lying to us, you are forbidden to work on tapestries for one year."
Akavasi glared at the older woman.
"You are a fool, Itami. Be grateful for the mercy we have shown you. Would you rather be banned for life?"
"Then go. Silently."
The two children in the front row--both boys--stood up next. They'd been caught defacing the bas-relief on a door in one of the main buildings and neither of them bothered to deny their guilt. The older boy, Pataki, explained his motive.
"It was an ugly carving, Mother."
Akavasi frowned at him.
"I remember that door well. As you say, it was ugly."
She turned her attention to the younger boy.
"And you, Vikatani? Is that why you defaced the carving?"
"Because Pataki dared me to, Mother."
Akavasi again held a whispered consultation with her peers before rendering judgement.
"Pataki, you will be apprenticed to the Master Sculptor. When you have gained sufficient skill, you will replace the door you defaced--make certain that it is no uglier than the old one. Vikatani will be apprenticed to the Master of Scouts. You are not to speak with each other again until you are adults."
The boys seemed unsure whether to be pleased or dismayed by their sentences. They stood there, blinking uncertainly, until Akavasi spoke again.
The next to stand were two young, barely-adult male twins. They looked terrified and it turned out they had good reason. A very young woman, Ekari, testified that one of the twins, Katakari, told her that he'd rescued his brother from a foraging tacht during their Ordeal.
The whole audience buzzed with outrage at her revelation.
Akavasi glared at the crowd.
"Be silent! Lives hang in the balance."
She turned her attention to the twins.
"Speak truthfully, or we will have the truth taken from you. Did Katakari save you from the tacht, Takati?"
He hung his head.
His brother spoke up in Takati's defense.
"Takati did nothing wrong, Mother! The sin was mine alone. Do not punish him for what I did, I beg you!"
Akavasi shook her head, her voice angry.
"We will make that decision, child."
She looked to her fellow Mothers.
"How say you?"
None of them spoke, but each in turn shook her head. Akavasi then spoke to the shaking twins.
"Because he said nothing until your sin was revealed, Takati shares your guilt, Katakari. He shall likewise share your punishment. You are both exiled from our mountains, never to return."
The two young men began to weep, openly and unashamed. Akavasi watched them for a moment, then spoke in a tone turned marginally less harsh.
"You may choose to go West or South."
Katakari and Takati looked at each other helplessly. As if to give themselves the courage to reply, they joined hands, tears still streaming down their faces. Katakari spoke for them.
"We will go West, Mother."
"Then go. Take nothing with you."
(Copyright© 1997, 1998 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)