Roween called them `ceremonies'. An hour or so after sunset,
she and Conley would stop at a place in the open, build a small cairn from
stones, clods of earth, then Conley would lie down while Roween chanted
verses over her in a sacred-sounding language of her own devising. To the
onlookers watching secretly from afar, she hoped it would appear that she
was performing some hallowed rite for purposes of mysterious import
transcending the ken of simple, endarkened mortals.
Of course, she knew she could be slain at any moment for
cutting such trash.
Time to bring today's ceremony to an end. Signalling Conley to
make ready, she began her finale, her address to the heavens. She had to
make this a good one - yesterday's had been a bit flat, what with Con's
breathing and all. Praise and thankfulness for life, that'll rouse them. She
fell to her knees, raised her arms, wailed.
What do these people see? She broke her sonority, injected
passion into her voice, filled the night air with invented syllables. Am I
really a goddess to them? She added joyfulness, love, steeped her words in
long, emotional vowels. Surely this doesn't fool anybody! Now she
peppered in the names, the gods - Eskh, Lonalon, Mun, Trell, Noco -
tokens among tokens, sense among nonsense. Is there anyone even
listening? Louder, louder. Is this comedy without an audience? "Lon!" she
was shouting, "Lon! Lon! Fafta d'uonestras!"
Conley discharged the light prime, the cue. Roween feigned a
faint of ecstasy, crumbled to the ground. She realised she was out of
breath, panting heavily.
"You take longer every time," whispered.
"Sorry," she bolted some air, "I have to perform," more, "give
them something to think about."
"Well maybe we can sleep now." She shivered. "Life but it's
"Put on an extra shirt later. You've - ?"
"Yes, I cast it while you were gibbering away just now. Don't
worry, no-one will have seen me, I was careful. Not that it'll help me
much, until we get the seg-order straight."
"But it is straight, Con!" puffed. "I reconstructed it whole, it's
complete! I told you!"
"I know what you told me, but I'm not feeling any better..."
Roween sighed, almost voiced, pained. "Bridges: I know a
* * *
Conley's coughing woke Roween only once in the night, and
she used the opportunity to visit the bushes: it wouldn't do for a goddess
openly to appear subject to quite so base a natural need. Although sun-up
wasn't for a couple of hours yet, already the air was dewy, dampening the
grass, compounding Conley's chills.
Roween licked her lower lip: still cracked. They'd switched to
using normal lip grease, but it hadn't helped; in fact, it might even be
making matters worse. As for the rest of her face, it was deteriorating fast,
she knew. She could feel the spots that were forming in pores that had been
bunged for days; it wouldn't have been so bad if she'd been able to take off
the make-up, put it on afresh, but circumstances only allowed the adding of
extra layers. Conley was supposed to do that first thing, if she was up to it;
part of a `godly soul enters frail human body' cliché prior to departure.
Although she was seeking signs of life - smoke from hidden
campfires, the whinnies of horses - it was a while before Roween realised
she could hear running water. Not a splashing stream, it was more orderly,
as if it was tumbling, cascading - regularly, and some distance, like falls or
large-scale rapids. No, it's accompanied by a grating noise, a grinding...
A watermill. A big, all-night watermill. A big river. The
* * *
"What about the Schaaldt, then, Ro? Is it wide? How are we
going to cross?"
Roween smiled. "It's wide, yes - too wide even to bridge.
There are ferries - there'll be a small one at the end of this road - but we
can't use them, they'll all be guarded real heavy. Probably shut down by
the army, leastwise we haven't passed anyone come eastbound from the
Conley looked ahead, couldn't see far for hedges, trees. "City-
bred soldiers... I suppose they're going to be a good deal more cynical than
these peasant types."
"Maybe, maybe not, but no ferryman would take you on board
anyway, case anyone catches what you've got..." She pulled up her horse.
Conley obeyed. "Another ceremony?" She coughed.
"No - well, maybe I'll kiss the dirt or something, yes. Thing is,
though, we must be getting close now, so we ought to leave the road, nip
across country. Probably best if we go for downstream, away from the
mill. It'll be further to the next crossing that way, more time to find
"Downstream, yes." She jutted her jaw a few times. "Life, my
head's stuffying up, I can hardly hear..."
* * *
They'd cut across several fields before reaching the towpath
alongside the Schaaldt.
Conley nodded, impressed. "It's ochre! Well I never knew
Roween was scanning it for boats. "Its name derives from the
High Vothic word for silt. So the histories say, anyway."
"Silt?" She cleared her throat.
Roween looked back to her. "You do know about the disaster,
don't you? It's edge of living memory, but..."
Conley's face was blank.
"Well let's ride on, I'll tell you as we go." She spurred.
"Upstream, the Schaaldt winds through wilderness, picks up silt. When it
meets the Cold Sea it dumps it all as sediment, a process which, over many
centuries, builds up a delta. The Schaaldt's used be particularly good: its
mouth became spread flat, and the new land was so fertile that the people
who moved in and farmed it really prospered."
"But there's no delta now... The disaster?"
"Ah," she was back to inspecting the distant surface. "One
night, the Cold Sea reclaimed what had been stolen from it. A devastating
tempest buffeted the coast, tearing away dunes and beaches, swallowing
mud flats, bashing groynes and sea-walls into flotsam. For three days, the
Lowlanders fought to save their livelihoods, patching holes, replenishing
sandbanks, but their actions were futile, the storm relentless."
"Yet if it had happened just fifty years later we could have
climate controlled it away... That's tragic."
"No, I doubt it would have made any long-term difference, the
Cold Sea would have to have got its way in the end. As it was, on the
fourth day the rain-bogged river banks finally gave way, turned against
their human defenders, allied with the ocean. The makeshift dams were
washed aside from behind, something the Lowlanders hadn't anticipated,
and the Cold Sea swept through in all its fury, thundering its way into the
irrigation system, gouging out a huge scoop of land. When it was all over,
tens of thousands of people were dead, towns and villages had been blended
into the sea bed, and the Schaaldt had to start its work all over again. I
can't believe you haven't heard this before, it's had a real effect on the
Lowlanders' national character."
Conley patted her horse's neck. "Old calamities that befell
distant nations aren't something they teach in magic school..."
* * *
Roween was scrubbing furiously at her face. "Has it come off
"It's ingrained, you'll need oil or something."
She glanced across the river. "Have they seen you? Wave
"I'm waving, Ro, maybe, no, wait! Someone's waving back!
He's, hold on." She flicked a light-prime, centred it on Roween. "I'm
better long-distance without my eyes on."
In the comsphere-3, Porett's mind struggled yet again against
the weight of sudden, overwhelming torment.
"What about Followers? Is anyone coming? Damn this blue
She spared a quick look. "Hard to tell, but I doubt they'd mean
us harm, they've watched us for days and done nothing."
"This'll just have to do, it's not too bad is it?"
Conley was watching the Lowlanders, ignored the question.
"Someone's pushing out a fishing boat!"
"They are?" She stood in her saddle. "Oh that's wonderful!"
Conley glanced back to her, smiled, then frowned, screwed her
eyes against the sun. "Are those ... people?" She pointed.
Pouring across the fields were hundreds of Voths.
Roween ducked. "Damn!"
"What do they want?"
She slid from her horse. "What do you think? I'm not waiting
to find out!"
"You turning this into a ceremony?" Relaxed.
"A `waving at Lowlanders' ceremony? Be real!" She was
tearing her saddlebags from their straps. "Can you swim?"
Conley dismounted, apprehensive. "Not all that way..." She
"Could you make it as far as the boat?" She whipped off her
cloak, laid it flat.
"I ... Are you sure they're a danger?" She began to unbuckle
her bags. "They might only want to wish us farewell - or maybe even
Roween was gathering up everything loose, was tossing it onto
her wrap. "Just get your stuff, we'll use this as a float."
"But if they're local villagers, don't know who we are..." She
looked back, couldn't hear them yet, her head, so stuffy...
"Come on, Con! They'll be here! How close is the boat?" She
glanced up, snarled. "We're going to have to swim... Give me those!" She
snatched Conley's bags, threw them onto the cloak, began to tie it.
"The water will be cold, they - " She stopped, could hear them
now, wild, outraged, stomach-shrinking murderous. She wanned. "Ro!
What have we done?"
Roween pushed out the bundle, grabbed Conley's wrist. "We
killed the Messenger, remember?" She waded in, dragged Conley, lunged
for the raft. "Hold on, and kick for it!"
Conley sent herself forward, took hold, fought the rush as her
body adapted to the bite of the waters. Roween was saying something,
"current", "middle", but it was lost in the seething that flushed her ears.
All was hubbub, chaos. She kicked, madly, knew it was too far,
knew they'd get her, knew it was pointless. Water engulfed her, she felt the
weight of her clothes, the extra shirt, dragging at her, sapping what was left
of her strength. Yet still she held on, buoyed by fear, desperation, the
craving to survive.
Stones were splashing nearby, maybe arrows? She was paddling
all she could, no idea where she was going, how far she'd come, was
swallowing mouthfuls of grit-laden river, battling for air. Roween lost her
grip, twisted round, she corrected, tried to hold them steady.
They must be on the shoreline now, be diving in. Her mind was
filled with visions of a river blotted with people, a turbulent, amorphous,
sand-like mass, soaking up the water by weight of number, sucking her
" - bees from an upended hive."
Roween was shouting, something, maybe, was just part of the
maelstrom, the churn of colours, crashing, spraying, the bubbles of sound.
Someone tore at her arm! She flailed, frenzied, but he was
stronger, was heaving her out of the flow. Were there two of them?
Someone was thrashing out with an oar, beating someone off, she could
hear cracking, submerging yells.
Her senses fused into one, then shrank to nothing.