It is towards the end of Sea Season. The rain that makes Sartar so fertile is starting to warm and starting to fade into the hot, alynx days of Fire Season. Berra has been at the temple a lot, but today the house has her, and Maalira. Berra is upstairs. Somewhere. Quietly. This can bode no ill…
Sea Season, Session 8
Maalira is bored. It is too warm to spin – she tried but the fibre stuck and curled under her fingers, so she gave up.
From upstairs comes the sound of someone being very frustrated. A low groan of disappointment, the sound of a fist punching a … maybe a bed? And then a couple of lower thumps which might be someone hitting their mattress instead of the frame.
Maalira climbs the stairs and taps gently on Berra’s door.
“Uh… Berra? You ok?”
Berra has a door which is just about big enough for Rajar to stand in if he bends his head. He still touches both sides. It’s painted with slightly faded colours on carvings of no particular artistic merit, and has a big wooden catch.
A moment after the question, there is the sound of movement like someone getting smoothly to their feet, and then the catch shifts, and the door opens a bit. Berra blinks out, surprised. “Oh. Hello.”
“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” Maalira says awkwardly, “it’s just that there was a lot of noise…”
Berra winces. “Oh. Sorry. I hadn’t realised. That anybody was in.”
“I was trying to spin, but the wool got sticky and uncooperative.”
“Yeah, it does that. It’ll change with the weather, but it depends on how washed it is and how close it is to raining again, and a lot of things.” Berra looks slightly confused. “I don’t know enough about how, but my sister does.”
“I’ll ask her to explain when we next go see her.” Maalira winces a bit.
“We can always invite her down,” Berra counters, bleakly. Her shoulders sag a little. “Do you want me to keep the noise down? I was just…” She glances into her room and trails off.
“No, it wasn’t bothering me! I just wanted to make sure you were alright.” Maalira pauses and tilts her head. “What were you doing?”
Berra sighs, steps away from the door, and pushes it open as she goes. “I was trying to meditate,” she replies. Inside the beds her family sleep in are neatly stacked under a table that has her leather armour laid out. Her sword, scabbarded, is held in her left hand – she is wearing light linen. Tunic, skirt like a man would wear, expression of tiredness. “I need back what I lost.”
“I take it the meditation wasn’t going well? Or is punching things a special technique?”
“Punching things is because I want to go fight things, but I shouldn’t.” Berra sits down on her bed. There is one stool in the room, although there were more earlier in the year. “I’ve been taking instruction from the Temple, even, but it’s just… I’ve… I can’t get back the strength I had and I keep on thinking about it instead of concentrating.”
Maalira sits down on the stool. “Maybe you need to stop trying so hard, and just let it come naturally?”
“Tried that too.” Berra shrugs, looking down. “I… tried a lot of things. And I’m at the end of knowing what to try.”
“Want to go for a walk and kick rocks or something?” Maalira offers.
There is a brief pause, and then a nod. “Yes. Let’s. Maybe rocks that look at us funny if things get weird. Have you ever been attacked by a rock?” Berra buckles on Wind Tooth while waiting for the answer.
“Oh yes,” Maalira grins. “They jump out if I get too close all the time.”
Berra stares briefly, and then gets it. “Right. I was wondering if you’d been attacked by the same people we were. We once got attacked by jumping rocks. It was weird.”
“Jumping rocks?!” Maalira’s eyes are wide. “Oh, you have to tell me that one.”
“Yeah. So I was a bit surprised.” Berra looks like the distraction is good for her. “We were in Tarsh. Uh, that’s the mountainy bit by Kero Fin. West of where we met, and a bit South. And we were climbing a mountain, and pebbles rained down, but it wasn’t steep enough for them to be falling.” She gestures Maalira to the door.
Maalira heads out the door. “Was someone making them jump?”
“No, they were jumping. They were defending their mountain – it was hurting. Then the big ones hit. Those ones bounced back at us when they missed.” Berra clatters down the stairs three at a time, narrowly missing banging her head on the ceiling.
Maalira pulls a horrified face, following Berra down the stairs rather more carefully. “Rocks that can think?”
“Well, these ones were as dumb as rocks. But when we stabbed them they stuck to our swords and axes. And started moving up them!” Berra turns to Maalira with a brief smile. “It was…. REALLY unexpected.”
“I bet.” Maalira shudders. “What did you DO?”
“Well, Varanis used a fireblade, but then Valseena sang to them, and they all stopped and dropped. They were afraid, I think. I never found out what they are but it wasn’t unnatural. Just weird.”
“A song to calm rocks sounds amazing.”
“It was. And then we got to the mountain and talked to it. There was a rock there that was trouble, but it wasn’t one of those. It was touched by Chaos.” Berra gets out onto the street after a moment of concentration, the sort she always does before leaving a house.
“I bet Rajar loved that,” Maalira says with a wide grin.
“Well, yeah. We’d met a Storm Bull there and his employer was after it and it all got really complicated.” Berra hand-waves.
“It always does get complicated, doesn’t it,” Maalira observes. “I suppose it wouldn’t be half as much fun if it didn’t.”
Berra nods solemnly. “Uhuh. Then a two-headed dragon-snail ate the Storm Bull’s head and then we cut one of the heads off, but it all gets complicated.”
Maalira blinks rapidly several times. “A two-headed WHAT?!”
“Dragon-snail. Uhhh…” Berra stretches up to gesture something as tall as she can reach. “About this big. Giant armoured snail. Two heads.”
“Can you reason with them?” Maalira asks curiously.
“They are Chaotic, so I never found out. But it was a weird place. Apparently the mountain sings sometimes? But not often.”
“I’d like to hear a mountain sing,” Maalira muses. “Sometimes the wind in Prax sings and whistles around rocks and trees but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing.”
“Yeah. It sort of sang to us, when Valseena got there. Maybe if we end up in Tarsh again this year, we can try to get that way.” Berra has not cheered up so much as put aside what was making her sigh.
“I’d like that.” Maalira puts up her hand to shade her eyes from the sun. “Phew, it’s bright out.”
“It’ll get really hot here, even up in the mountains. Not Prax-hot, but the brightness is different. It comes off the snow that doesn’t leave.” Berra looks around. “You know, werewolves live that way?” She points up the valley to the North.
“No, I didn’t know that. Do we need to worry about them?”
“No, those ones are the Royal Guard. The wilder ones live up in the Culbrea tribe. No. Next to them.” Berra’s expression gets complicated suddenly.
“Uh. Are the Culbrea tribe werewolves?”
“No. Sorry. Just been briefing people on a lot of things lately. The Telmori are the werewolf tribe. They live very close to the Culbrea. Wiped out the Maboder tribe up there.” Berra glances around the street. “It’s complicated.”
“Of course it is.” Maalira looks around as well. “What are you looking for?”
“Nothing really. Just habit. Stuff that’s out of place. Trolls in the daytime, my old Sword used to call it. You get plenty of them really but that’s not the point.”
“You get plenty of trolls?”
“When there’s a troll in the daytime, or someone in a long cloak when it’s hot, or someone walking against the crowd, that’s a thing that’s standing out, so it’s worth keeping an eye on. I mean, around here you do get trolls in the daytime, but that’s kind of the point. It’s strange.” Berra looks around.
“So, around here, can you see anything?” Berra asks casually. There’s one thing that sticks out; people are avoiding the little warrior and the White Lady politely, except a few – sometimes people walking are polite about Maalira but not about the woman with a sword at her side. It’s usually those who are armed themselves who do not make way for Berra.
“Some of the people with swords aren’t giving way to you,” Maalira says slowly after a long look.
“Yeah,” Berra says just as slowly, and thoughtfully like she is putting that into her head. “So?”
“I wonder…” Maalira looks again, eyeing another armed passer-by. “They aren’t getting in my way, so perhaps they respect or fear white ladies, but don’t respect Humakti?”
“I’m not in armour,” comes the reply. “But pretty close, yeah. Some of them haven’t noticed me, or realised who I am. Some have, and they’re kidding themselves. Some have, and they might be trouble. But the ones that walk towards me, whether they know what I am or not, they’re the ones that either don’t know what the danger of me is, or don’t care. So those are some of what I’m looking for.”
“Because they could be trouble?”
Berra nods. “Because they could be trouble. Even if I can deal with it. And they might be the trouble that puts me off finding the real thing. Like … you were looking the wrong way to see, but someone took a wide angle around us, so he knew and he’s worried. Or he saw someone he knows and went that way. But there are lots of things that stick out, and you can’t see the whole crowd all at once, so you look for ways to find out what’s most likely to be most important.”
Maalira nods, with a half smile. “Like a rock bouncing more than the slope should allow,” she adds.
“That sort of thing, yeah.” Berra smiles widely. “So. I could tell you about the werewolves if you like. Or we could just enjoy the weather.”
“Please tell me about the werewolves!” Maalira’s enthusiasm is almost childlike.
“‘Right, but you gotta know what I know more about the customs of my people than their history. I didn’t listen so much to those bits. But it starts out with this. Prax isn’t a Kingdom. Sartar is.”
Maalira nods. “That’s right.”
Berra walks on Maalira’s right, casually not being a threat when people come close, even managing to step out of the way of some of the day-crowd on the streets. “It used to be a lot of tribes, and they used to fight a lot more, but they all had places, although they fought for the best ones. Not so much like Prax where everyone moves. And a man called Sartar came and founded these things called cities. Sometimes people use the word town, but a city’s special. It’s a place where tribes rule together. So Jonstown has the Malani and the Culbrea and… uh… the Cinsina, I think. I forget. And the Maboder, they used to. And in making that city, Sartar made peace with a tribe that were cursed to turn into wolves.”
“How did that even happen?”
“The curse bit? Or the making peace bit?” Berra hops up onto a small stub of a pillar, down the other side.
“Um… long time before that. You might tell these stories a different way, there was a Chaos god pretending not to be one. G’Baji, or Nysaloph, or something? And he was fought by a hero called Arkat, who was a Humakti, but also it’s really complicated and I don’t understand it all. But he wielded Humakt’s sword, and cut through the lies. But G’Baji had given magical wolf-hides to these people, only when they wore them, the hides became part of them. When the red moon rose into the sky, they all turned into wolves, even if they hadn’t had to before, and now when it’s reddest, they all turn again, and become wild. So, every Wildday.”
“That… makes sense,” Maalira says, after a moment of brow-furrowed concentration. “Go on?”
“Sartar made them less wild, although he never got rid of the taint. So they stay well away. But they’re the Royal Guard – I think maybe they’re waiting for the House of Sartar to get rid of that. But they’re a tribe – he made them that, to stop everyone from fighting.” Berra shrugs, expression complicated. “I don’t like it, but it’s a thing that happened.”
“Gods and rulers don’t ask if we like it,” Maalira notes. “They do what they want. Including making less destructive werewolves.”
“Yeah. But still – Chaos. I guess you could say he made it less bad.” There is another shrug from the Humakti. “But the ones that live in the city are a lot less of a problem. The wilder ones really raid a lot.”
“Is that because living in the wild makes them wilder? Or just because they can get away with it?”
A complicated shrug from the broad-shouldered warrior. “If I was a wolf, I could maybe answer? But I think it’s because they can get away with it. The year I was born, they wiped out another Tribe. There wasn’t a King in Sartar then.”
Maalira pulls a face. “I will never understand how so many people think that killing is a good idea. I mean, not when there’s no other choice, like in a battle or when you’re being attacked, but why do they start it?”
Berra sighs. “I really don’t know. I got into it to help people. But then again, I… sometimes people argue and it’s wrong to back down. Honour’s hard to live with.”
Maalira nods. “Honour matters.”
That gets a smile from Berra, albeit a small one. She is still subdued at a low level. “The invasion was… what, four years before I was born? Probably about the same for you. Although you get a different date I guess because that’s Prax. I got sent to Esrolia to live, about the time the Lunars were fighting on the plains.”
Maalira’s lips twist. “Yeah. It wasn’t a good time for anyone. I… lost people.”
“Sorry.” Berra does not reach to squeeze a shoulder, or even look like she’s offering a hug.
“It was a long time ago. It doesn’t sting so much now.” Maalira sighs. “And there’s been a lot of fighting since then, all over.”
“I’ve been a guard since I was fifteen,” Berra says. “Well, a scout. And a guard. Warrior. But the first time I got paid it was as a guard.”
“I got told that I could be a white lady when was still tiny,” Maalira reflects. “I thought they were amazing, all distinct and chilly in their white robes, so I went along with it and then that was that.” She rolls her eyes a bit. “Of course no one ever said I’d spend the rest of my life getting unspeakable gunk out of white fabric.”
Berra chuckles, and it turns into a laugh. “Alright, there are worse things to be but that’s still pretty good timing. Gunk.”
“So much gunk.” Maalira is laughing too.
“I got out of the water after Pennel Ford and threw away my foot wrappings,” Berra says after a bit. “They were pretty unspeakable.” She looks up at a fragment of wall, looks at Maalira, and looks at the wall again. “You know how to run at a thing like that, and up it? Can cause a stir, but it’s a good way of getting up quickly.”
“No, I don’t… they don’t teach you that sort of thing when you’re expected to be a white lady.”
Maalira grins widely. “YES!”
“You’re going to need to hitch up your robe,” Berra says. “And then you run at it, jump, so you’re going to hit the wall, then you hit it first with your foot and push yourself up. And probably fall over a lot. We’ll do it over by that grassy patch.” She bounces on her toes. “And it’s stupid to do it in hobnails. Don’t be like me.”
Maalira flexes her feet in her rather more flexible shoes. “Why do I think this is going to end up with me needing to clean my gown again?”
“If it’s green and not red, you did fine. You’re going to hit really hard with your toes, so don’t be surprised by that. Like jumping from a high place. Just try to get your hands up and under you, or your arms locked over. Let me show you a couple of times?” The wall is eight feet tall by the grassy bit. Berra is five feet and a very important half inch.
Maalira nods. “I’m going to stand beside the wall so I can see exactly what’s going on. I won’t be able to pick it all out from behind you.”
Berra says, “Yep. But watch from back, first, so you can see how my hands go.” And then she takes a curved run to make sure she gets onto the grass, bounces into the air, hits the wall with the scratchy sound of bronze hobnails slipping just a little, and gets her forearms over the top of it, her upper body over them. A moment later, she falls back and lands. “Like that but with less forgetting to get up the last bit,” she says, looking proud.
Maalira snorts. “I’ll try to remember that.”
Berra does the same thing again, this time using her newly-gained position to push up with her hands and get a foot up onto the wall top before she stops. A third time sees a lot more flailing as her foot slips a little early and she catches the wall mostly with her hands, and pulls herself up. Still, that’s a good range of possibilities she has shown off.
Maalira eyes the wall, biting her lip just a little. “This will probably go horribly wrong,” she observes.
“Well, yeah,” Berra says cheerfully. “And I will be there for you.”
Maalira flexes a few times then takes a run-up. She hits the wall about where Berra did, pushes off, and manages to get her arms over the wall. She makes a noise somewhere between ‘ouch’ and ‘oof’.
Berra lets out a little yip of excitement. “Go for it! Push, and walk your legs up!”
Maalira’s feet scrabble against the stone, but she manages to get purchase and she gets her weight onto her palms long enough to push up and sit on top of the wall.
Berra comes up a moment later, getting a bit of dust on her forearms, which are already scraped, but sitting down with a victorious look by Maalira’s side. “Well done.”
Maalira giggles, slightly wildly. “I can’t believe I did it.”
Berra replies stoutly, “I can.”