Grave-digging Part 4

1629, Sea Season, Disorder Week, Godday


In the wilds of Culbrea territory, there was a Telmori den. One of the healers begins to tell stories of Chalana Arroy and Varanis finally snaps. Part 4 of 8, following on from Grave-digging Part 3, Session Ill Wind.


“In the time before there was Time,” the woman says as she glares at the cook, “A tiny being came to speak to Yelm. When Chalana Arroy saw that it could not pass through from the antechamber, she made a great veil of white, which she still wears today, and held it before Yelm. His might still shone through, and he saw all things through it, but the being could go beseech the Emperor of the Law, and so all was well. Afterwards, Chalana Arroy released what had been caught in the veil, and called it Arroin, which means Brightness, and it went into the world joyfully.”

The man bows to her. “I like this story,” he says to Irillo and the others, “But of course it is a mystery I cannot tell.”

The White Lady smiles, and holds out her bowl. As it is filled, she talks, and she keeps talking while she goes to sit down. “Chalana Arroy saw that in the world, young Ernalda was continually pushed aside by the great forces, because she had such a burden on her that she could barely balance. It was not heavy, but it was unwieldy. The Goddess in White took from her some of it, kissing Ernalda’s cheek in return, and saw it was made of quiet care. She held it for a while, until it was ready to go out into the world, and so Arroin means ‘Gentleness’. The next time that a great god pushed past Ernalda, she held her ground, and they learned to walk around her.”

Berra does not bother digging around in her pack for food. She just watches as if she is not hungry at all.

“Issaries had seen the trade,” the story-teller informs Irillo, “Which gave him ideas about new goods he could sell, and surplus goods which he could buy cheaply. He was enchanted with these new ideas, and forgot to eat as he considered them. Chalana Arroy saw him sitting, wasting away, and she approached and traded his excess, excited planning, for peace and calm. She released what she had traded into the world, and called it Arroin, which means Hope.” The nearby representative of the Merchant gets half a come-hither look. That is, a cute wink.

“Yes I’m known for my ability to sit still in calmness!” Irillo might be serious.

The woman smiles. “I’m sure you don’t rush into things.” She takes a spoonful of what could be perfectly ordinary vegetable stew, and looks impressed. “Nice, Dippy,” she tells the surgeon. “But now I have to talk about Orlanth while it cools.” She steps down into the deepening hole to examine what Varanis is doing.

The Vingan is ignoring everyone and just focusing on her digging. She looks like she’s broken a sweat, but she isn’t flagging.

“When Chalana Arroy first met Orlanth,” the woman tells Varanis, “He was still new-born, coming with his comb and his rattle to challenge Yelm. She took him aside and combed some of the wildness out of his hair and told him that his comb would be good for his beard as well, one day. This wildness became a little thing that had to leave her, and so she called it Arroin, which means ‘one who wanders’, and released it. You should go eat. We break for these things if we can, so we can keep going.”

Varanis glances up, rebellion and anger in her expression. “I’m not…” She stops herself, takes a deep breath, and as she lets it out, her shoulders ease a little. “Soon,” she promises. “I just want to clean this edge, then maybe Berra can swap in.”

The woman gives her a look. “We’ll get to Berra’s story soon. Go see Arroin. He’s got a delicious way with mushrooms.”

Berra looks a little confused by that.

The Vingan stubbornly finishes what she was doing, then climbs out of the deepening grave to offer the spade to Berra. “It probably needs sharpening again. Want me to do it?”

As Varanis finishes off, and as she herself picks out and feasts on the mushrooms, the storyteller goes on. “While out looking for her son Arroin, who often wandered far, Chalana Arroy noticed the beast Hykimikyh struggling to be free of itself, and she helped to sort out its many legs and its two heads and two tails, and it asked her who should have the wings. She said that she did not know, but that one each would be wrong, and so the part that had sharp teeth could do without the wings. The beasts agreed, and departed, and Chalana Arroy was left with the joining of them, which she released into the world, giving it the name Togetherness, or Arroin. These are so good, Dippy. How do you do it?”

She gets an amused look in return.

Berra takes the spade from Varanis. “No. Go eat. I can check it.” She does, and finds that the edge is fine. By now there is a decent step down into the hole.

Varanis accepts a bowl of stew and pulls out her spoon. She is Vingan and noble, so it is of little surprise to anyone that she eats with bronze.

The surgeon must like good food. All of the flavours are clear, nothing is boiled to softness, and everything is slightly spiced. He is looking smug about it.

Berra starts clearing the next layer of earth, and then gets side-swiped by a story.

“It was in the Great Darkness that Chalana Arroy met Humakt,” it begins. The little warrior stops to stare. “She sheltered in a cave and he lay down outside on sharp stones to protect her. She called him in, but he said he had a task to do, and she noticed that in his voice was pain for others.” Berra’s expression is startled, and stuck there. “He said that he was taking back Death, but that sometimes it was needed and so he left it, blunting his own thoughts. She told him then that she was cold, and asked for his help, and he came in to warm her, and left her with some of the softness that had crippled him in his search. She had a child whom she dressed in robes as white as Humakt’s hair, and next time she saw the Death God, his hair was black. The child, she sent out into the world to teach others, which is why the name Arroin means ‘Compassion’.”

Berra has forgotten to dig.

“Compassion,” Varanis says. “Compassion?” She glances over to where the small bodies lay wrapped next to their mother’s corpse. “We don’t have enough of that in the world,” she says bitterly. “We’re having a meal and telling stories about Barntar or Eurmal or Lunar cities and their moons, but the babies are dead and there are going to be people who think that’s good just because of who their parents were. Just because of who they were. They didn’t ask to be born Telmori. They just were. And people will be happy they’re dead and angry that we saved their father and brother and… it’s not fair.” She scowls. “You want a story? Once, more than 30 years ago now, there were two brothers. They had a sister and a mother and father too. By all accounts, they were happy children, practically babies still. Filled with curiosity and very loved. And then the sickness came. A spirit? Poison? That part of the story is never told. But it came and it took them and their mother was never the same. Not for her daughter or the children that came after. Hunted and plagued by mysterious accidents… none of the children asked to be who they were born to be. Just like the cubs.” She stabs her stew with her spoon. “I want to see my child,” she tells the bowl.

Berra is slow to react, looking around for a place to put the spade. It is the woman who did not tell stories who gets to Varanis first, sitting down beside her and putting an arm around her shoulders. Hug time.

At first, Varanis freezes, and then she lets out a small, choked sob that seems to open the way for more. Still holding her bowl, she turns her face into the white robes of the woman holding her and she weeps.

It’s a good, enfolding hug, and the White Lady reaches for the bowl to put it aside. She seems unsurprised, to those watching.

The gravediggers do not look away, for after all, emotion is Orlanthi. Berra holds the spade awkwardly, blade down in the dirt.

It is several minutes before the Vingan is able to pull herself together. At last, she does, swiping at the tears on her face with dirty hands.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles. “I’m just tired and sad and was overwhelmed.”

“Oh dear,” she gets told up close and personal. “Air often is. It’s safest to let it out.”

There is a soft ‘pop’ noise as a flask is opened, and an expensive glugging noise as the merchant pours into a goblet.

The surgeon blasphemes slightly, by making a sign for departed souls at the flask, where nobody but Irillo can see.

“I’m fine now,” Varanis tells her, sniffing and swiping at the tears that haven’t quite stopped.

“You’re relieved now,” she is told half sternly. “And it feels better, doesn’t it? But not all the way better.” The healer pulls out a neatly-made handkerchief with tiny Runes on one corner.

Varanis sighs. “It is as you say. But,” she sniffs, “it has to be enough. There’s a grave to dig, a village to deal with, and a Wyter to find. I will be fine. I just need to stop with these tears and get moving. I’m always better when I’m doing something.”

In the light of Irillo’s lamp, Varanis’ face is a mess. Digging is dirty work, especially when you don’t know how to do it right, and the smeared tears have added to the overall effect. Wearing just her padding and covered in dirt as she is, she looks far younger and far less the noble than she usually does.

The Merchant waits, quietly, and then guides the goblet into her hands. It carries the richly spiced scents of the mead of Esrolia. “We’re here for you.”

The White Lady does her best with the handkerchief, taking her time, until Irillo approaches.

The Vingan accepts both the attention and the wine with an abashed “thanks”. She sips from the goblet.

Berra gets back to digging. Apparently it’s her turn.

By the time she makes it through the wine, there’s been another shuddering sob and a few more tears, but Varanis seems set on shoving everything back under her control. She thanks the White Lady and rises to return Irillo’s goblet.

The healer picks up Varanis’ bowl. “Eat, too.”

This is met with a frown, but the other woman sits again and obediently takes the food. She eats methodically and without interest in the food, but she eats. When she’s done, she wipes the bowl clean, returns it and Irillo’s goblet. “Thank you,” she tells her cousin, sitting down beside him to watch Berra dig. She leans into him a little, much as she does with Xenofos, when she needs comfort but can’t ask.

Berra is humming quietly to herself, lost in thought.

“May home be a blessing to you, in times of trouble, far from home,” Irillo says.

Varanis sits up straight again and gives him an inscrutable look. “Thanks.”

He gives a quirk of a smile, “You can have more than one home, you know. I have a few. And your family loves you.”