Dun Stop

1628, Fire Season, Fertility Week


In Dunstop. Session 3.13.


It is late afternoon, on a day that has seen trading, a conversation with a Queen, and the vanishing of several people to go pick up something called a passport. Berra has become bored of playing knucklebones with Koraki. An hour of meditation calmed her, as well as giving the local populace the chance to ignore her – she is lightly dressed, with few markers of her god obvious when her palms are upwards and the tattooed backs of her hands are resting on her knees. Still, even communing with her own spirit has palled, and she opens her eyes and looks around, standing by starting to jump to her feet, apparently remembering she should not be doing that, and rising carefully and slowly, like a normal person. Only someone who knew her would have seen the shift from eager to sober and controlled.

Around them is the usual business of the inn. Maalira can call on having a private room, if she wishes, but there is nothing up there but furniture and walls. No company, in a hot, stuffy room.

Maalira has fidgeted with needlework but it is not holding her interest. She has done an inventory of her supplies and briefly considered going in search of a herb market, but decided that was also too much trouble. She is instead nursing a cold drink and musing.

Berra calls for a mix of milk and water, and when that is not available, for small beer. She drops onto the bench opposite Maalira, over the table, and sets her drink down. Most people would have done it in the other order. “Heya.”

Maalira smiles. “Heya. Done meditating?”

Berra nods. “My du-Sword likes me to do it. Says I should.”

Maalira’s lips twitch at the du-Sword. “I’m sure it’s good for you. I should do it more – I mean, I meditate at night, when it’s dark and there are no distractions, but I think that may be cheating.”

“Any practice is good practice. I keep meaning to ask if he can meditate while riding. But everyone starts not… well, alright. Probably some people are good at it right from the start but everyone still needs to practice.” Berra gives Maalira a quick smile, like she is sure the White Lady is getting better at this very hard thing.

Maalira pulls a wry face. “Why is practising so infuriating, though?”

Berra nearly answers that a couple of times, and then says, “Because we’re bad at it, and don’t like being bad at things,” with a sigh. She manages not to knot her limbs around or lean on the table or do any of the long, complicated stretches that would usually be punctuation. She even manages to look natural about not being in motion.

Maalira eyes her. “Do you want to go for a walk after we finish our drinks? We’ve been sitting around for ages.”

In answer, Berra gulps back her beer and puts down the cup.

Maalira snorts, swallows the last of her own, and gestures to the door with her head. “Shall we?”

Berra says, “Hang on a moment. Shoes.” But, true to her word, even that does not take long, and she joins Maalira a moment later. Either Sartarites wear just foot wrappings indoors, or she was being strange again. It could be either.

Outside, the early evening sun is beating down on the market, which is still loud and full of good smells and brilliant sights.

Maalira brightens up as the fresh scents of the herb merchants waft over to them. “I was going to look for a few herbs I’m low on, but I’m not sure whether to get them here or further along the road. What do you think?”

Berra says, “I prefer right now to stay where there is no trouble, but as I am not bringing trouble, if you wish to walk, I am happy to.” She has only one sword with her, but now that she is in motion something about her says ‘professional bodyguard’. Her light clothes are not armour, though.

Maalira blinks a few times. “What trouble could we get into at the herb stalls?”

“None that I know of.” Berra smiles. “But the limits of the market here are this square, and anything beyond that doesn’t have magic to keep the peace. I mean, I don’t mind either way. Just if you think I might cause trouble I could make you easy about that by us not going too far?” It sound like the last bit has guesswork in it.

“I don’t think you cause trouble.” Maalira is grinning. “Attract, perhaps… which is a joke, I am teasing.” She looks around at the herb stalls, then shakes her head. “I can’t be bothered with shopping. Let’s walk.”

“Oh, no. Sometimes I cause it,” Berra says. “Usually on purpose though.” She walks alongside Maalira, looking exactly unlike a lodestone for trouble. “It’s noisy enough here to talk, anyhow. I’m tired of not being able to.”

“Me too,” Maalira says emphatically. “Let’s get out in the quiet where we can talk freely.”

Berra does just that, and when a road stretches ahead she says, “Crowds are good for covering noise, I think. I mean, speaking as a scout. Maybe not conversation after all.”

“It’s not like we’re discussing state secrets,” Maalira points out. “I mean, not much.”

“I need to… well, I don’t like not being alert.” Berra glances around, surprisingly casually. “I want to find out what’s going on, and get back home, and have nobody die. It’s not like this normally. Normally it’s much more creeping across dead ground sort of stuff.”

“Political skulking isn’t as much fun as actual skulking,” Maalira agrees, despite having as little experience with the latter as the former.

“Plus there’s a lot less action of the kind I enjoy if it goes wrong,” Berra says. “And I can’t even check out this town because I’m a foreigner and… I think probably I’d want to take it by siege, to be honest.”

Maalira giggles. “Not that you’re checking it out.”

Berra chuckles in response, looking down and even blushing. “I can’t help it,” she says. “I… I was a scout before I was even a Humakti.”

“It’s not at all a bad thing to have an eye out for plans for just in case,” Maalira says, running her eyes across the buildings around them. “What should I be looking for?”

“You? In general, or what? That’s a pretty big question.” Berra does not look confused so much as surprised.

“I mean… obviously I don’t fight.” Maalira fidgets with her hands, which are nowhere near strong enough for a sword. “But if I had to tell someone how to fight a particular place, or how to defend it… what would I look for?”

“Oh, right. Choke points, and hard points. A gate is both, generally. So then you’re also looking for ways around that. Defending’s easier. You know how it’s easier to defend an alley than a street?” That, to Berra at least, seems to be obvious.

“Not from experience, never having seen either until after I was a White Lady, but I can imagine,” Maalira says. “Not as much space to get through.”

“Yeah. Having people around at the sides is bad. They stab you. You fall over. It’s not at all friendly. So a gate-house is a lot like that. You’ve got to have holes in your walls so people can get in and out, but you don’t want just anyone to, so you have a killing ground coming up to it, and then a gate house. Sometimes, you get a double gate, but those are only in places where the Dwarfs helped to build things. If you get stuck in one of those, they’ll have holes in the walls above.”

“That doesn’t sound friendly either.” Maalira had snorted at the word, and uses it back at Berra with a grin.

“Also unfriendly, yes. So we try our best not to stay in the gates for long. If you need to get in somewhere, you punch through. Then you can hold it, but you don’t want to be fighting there. You want to be using it for you. If you see what I mean? When you go into a fight, and it’s not one where you’re being challenged, you want superiority of numbers and force.” Long words for a short Humakti.

“Yes, that makes sense. It’s like when you’re trying to heal someone, you don’t want to just give them something that will hold off the infection or the bleeding, you need to really hit it hard to stop it, then you can work on repairing the damage.” Maalira frowns. “That sounded like a better analogy in my head.”

Berra says, “Nah, I think I get you. Once you’re not dead, you can get better.” It might not have been exactly what was meant. “So when you’re defending, you want high ground, you want cover for yourself, and you want to be able to see people coming. A city on a hill – like this one – does all of that. The walls are cover from view and from being shot at, and from magic. And you can stand on them, so they are high ground by themselves too.”

“What do you do if the other person has the high ground?”

“Be fast. But I’ve got magic to help, and that’s good. As a scout, I can maybe get behind them, although obviously I wouldn’t attack by surprise – but I could try to get in unseen, or I could try to get there by force, or I could fight from disadvantage, or I could get Va… get an Orlanthi to do that part, because they can fly. But usually I’d rely on magic. Remember how I went up the wall to join the people who could fly, at Alda Chur? That was me getting to the high ground as soon as I could. A Humakti way of asking it is how do you get your sword to the right place?”

“That makes sense.” Maalira looks wistful. “It must be quite a thing to be able to fly.”

“You could ask her some time,” Berra says, leaving out the name with a touch of effort. “Or in fact, any Orlanthi. When we’re not around here. They can make other people fly too – one of the things … well, it’s a good catch-me for when you’re climbing stuff and fall.”

“Maybe I will ask… her… to let me see what it’s like, when we’re all back where we belong,” Maalira says. “I don’t think she’d mind me asking?”

“She’d love to make it happen, I think,” Berra says. “Go with her, do a thing, take time. It costs her, but she … she likes it, and she needs friends.”

Maalira nods. “I don’t think nobles get to relax much, from watching… her.”

“She’s… we’re in the middle of a complicated thing. She’s the one who has to keep us all together, and make decisions, and right now we’re not letting her do that except when we are.” Berra grins. “I’m pretty sure Lady Kalis at the Earth Temple back home relaxes a lot. She certainly spends a lot of her time lying down.”

Maalira opens her mouth to say something, closes it again, frowns, opens her mouth, closes her mouth, then stops and turns to face Berra. “I absolutely cannot tell whether you realise what that means or not,” she says.

Berra says, “Either I’m alone with her a lot, or I know what it means,” after a moment’s thought in which her face is oddly unreadable.

Paused, poised, innocent – Berra looks properly herself for a moment.

Maalira puts her hands over her eyes, her shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

However, this is Berra, and details are important. “It’s possible that both are true, but in fact I don’t spend much time with her. So honestly I can’t actually tell you whether she’s a true representation of Ernalda.”

Maalira brings her hand away from her face, swiping her eyes with her thumb and forefinger as she does so. “I don’t think lying down is necessarily relaxing… no, nevermind.” She shakes her head. “I think there are nobles who have time and money, but no politics. I don’t think V…she… has been that lucky.”

“Yeah, Kalis probably isn’t doing all of the lying down anyhow,” Berra finishes. “And no, the thane takes her duties seriously.”

Maalira looks for a moment like she might go back to ask another question about Kalis, then thinks the better of it.

“Why does she like to climb so much? I mean the thane, not Kalis.” The last part Maalira says very firmly.

“Air. She needs to be high, and free,” Berra says instantly. “She’s an Orlanthi. I need to explore things. She needs to push herself and not have people pushing her.” And if the thought of Kalis climbing hits her then, it’s just a moment of blinking, and a shake of the head to clear it.

“I can understand that. Not the high up, but the freedom and the air. Prax has a lot of air.”

“One day I’m going to climb around my Temple,” Berra says. “Then the High Sword will probably want to talk to me. If you were going to do one really stupid but fun thing that gets you into trouble, what’ll it be?” Either she does not know how to use the conditional, or she went from ‘if’ to ‘when and how’.

Maalira grins, perhaps at the grammar, perhaps at the image of Berra’s hijinks, perhaps at both. “I don’t know. If I was going to do a stupid but fun thing I’d probably do it nowhere near another White Lady, so that I couldn’t get into trouble.”

Berra considers that. “Not something I’d have thought of. Although I guess I do call that ‘acting with dignity’ and I do it more around some people. But … hey, I’ve got one. You know there’s a glacier by Boldhome? A giant ice-cow?”

“Yes?” Maalira says, inaccurately.

“We could go to the top of it. I’ve been to the bottom. I bet we could slide on the ice.” This may also be inaccurate, but at least Berra delivers it with enthusiasm.

We would probably need to put some soft stuff at the bottom, to make sure we didn’t break anything when we landed,” Maalira muses. “We’d be moving pretty fast.”

“Well, the big glacier itself is too big to slide off. But up on the top…” Berra looks wistful.

“I bet Var-” Maalira claps her hand over her mouth, then tries again. “I bet the thane wouldn’t even yell at us that much if we tried it.”

“She would if we … no, she wouldn’t if we didn’t invite her, but she might be disappointed. But we could go check it out and see if it’s possible. And there’s a dragonewt market not far away.”

“This sounds like something we should definitely all do once all this…” Maalira gestures around- “is done.”

Berra nods. “Or something else that’s fun and a bit dangerous, but I like this one.”