1626, Storm Season, Harmony Week
The day after the Crocodile and before arriving at the Paps, during Rune Messiah, (Session 2.26).
Follows after But Inside In The Dark.
In the late evening, verging on night, Berra flops down by Varanis and grunts. “Mmph?”
Varanis has been staring into the darkness, her back turned to the fire. She acknowledges Berra with a murmured “Hello.”
“Hello. Be nice to Xenofos for a bit. He needs it.” Berra does not bother oiling her words before using them.
This gets the Vingan’s attention. “I saw you with him earlier. He still disturbed by the thing at Raven Hill?”
“I don’t know. He… maybe? I didn’t think he was disturbed by that, but maybe he was. But I don’t think he’s ready to talk about it. Probably too close.”
“He believes that if he’d died there, he’d have never been free of it. An afterlife of unending battle. That’s something a Storm Bull might desire, but not our Xenofos. He’s a peaceful man by nature.” She glances his direction, but takes care not to let her gaze rest on him too long.
Berra is lying down in a tumbled position, on a mostly dry bit of ground. This is the sort of thing she does, and tends to indicate she feels at ease. It also probably indicates tiredness; her boots are muddy despite evidence of cleaning, and her shoulders and hips are more relaxed than is her wont. “Right. Yeah, that didn’t really bother me, to be honest. I think I can’t imagine it, though. I don’t know what unending really means.”
“He’s so unhappy. I wonder if he regrets his oath to me…” Stripped of her armour for the night, the Esrolian woman looks strangely gaunt. She’s burning more energy than she’s consuming, much like everyone else in the group.
“I don’t get that idea. I think he’s dedicated to you. I mean, in more than just words. He’d die for you, but he doesn’t want to have to die.” Berra shrugs. “Maybe I put that badly.”
Varanis sighs. “He’s going to need another mount. He can’t keep borrowing yours and Rajar’s. It’s too bad… I think he liked Stripey. Though that name…” She shakes her head.
“He said he didn’t want me to ask you… well, to remind you about it. He thinks it’s for him to do. He wasn’t riding to war. I sort of respect that, but it does leave him without a zebra.” Berra inspects her fingernails by digging under them with a thumbnail.
Varanis stiffens. “My resources are getting thin, I admit, but what kind of leader does he think I am? I look after my people.” A deep breath and she softens her spine. “Unless his pride is in the way. That I could understand, I suppose, but he’s never struck me as particularly prideful.”
“It’s his pride. He likes to do things properly. Exactly. Like, he’s not the best… well, he does what he believes a noble should do, and he wants to live that way.” Berra winces as she catches a torn nail, and explores it with her tongue.
“Thoughts? Do I let him handle this himself? Would offering to do it cause more harm?” She curses softly. “I feel like I need to tread on eggshells with him. I want him to remember that he has my respect and love, but he seems to be so defensive lately. It’s as though he’s closing himself away again. I wonder if Mellia could get through to him?”
“I fink onfe we… once we get back to Sartar, he’ll probably feel better. He’s more of a static sort than we are. I mean, I’m a bit bored with just riding every day but to him I think it’s really disruptive because it’s change.” Berra glumly examines her nail.
“I hope he’ll stay with me at the Paps then. It’ll only be about a week, but hopefully it’ll be a week with a consistent roof over our heads. Maybe a bit of warmth. A chance to stop moving for a few days.” She stares intently into the darkness, as though by will alone, she could pick out the holy site despite Yelm’s absence.
“Yeah. Probably good. And maybe there will be people there from Esrolia. If Mellia’s come all the way, and brought Venlar, maybe other people come too?” Berra sounds perky again, as she pulls out a dagger to get rid of the broken nail.
“Tell me about Humakt’s understanding of Orlanth? What does your temple teach you?”
“Uh?” Berra looks up, knife in one hand. “Um, quite a lot? Do you want to narrow it down?”
“Let’s start with what you think might be unique to Humakt? If that’s not giving away secrets.” Varanis pulls her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. Her head is crowned with a tousled mess that would reduce Marta to despair.
Berra thinks for a bit. “Right. Well, Humakt judges Orlanth on honour, because he thinks that he’s already a worthy leader. He knows he’s mighty – he doesn’t bother testing that.”
“Humakt chooses to serve. He could have gone to any of the Tribes, and Orlanth wasn’t his brother any more, so there was really no reason to choose him. But he became the champion of one who was willing to do the hard thing. Orlanth became King of the Gods by saving the world. By leading the Lightbringers.”
“And yet, the world needed saving because of him. How does Humakt judge that?”
“Sometimes, I kill you. It was greedy and thoughtless and an act without honour, based on theft. But the important bit is that Orlanth is sorry. He changes. He’s not just rebellion, but change. He changes himself.”
Long fingers stroke the tiny death rune at her throat. “I didn’t much care for dying,” Varanis admits. “I’d prefer not to do that again soon. I’ve been that Orlanth… that Vinga. The one who acts thoughtlessly. But I always thought my honour was intact and now I wonder.”
“Kinda. I’ve never seen you just take what you want. You’re not like that. Orlanth Murderer isn’t a cult I ever want to find out exists.” Berra actually shudders.
Sending Berra a wary glance, Varanis contradicts her. “You have forgotten then. I took the box. And I took your sword, though it was only in a dream, or so I thought.”
“Mm. I’d forgotten the box. But yes, you were Orlanth. That wasn’t an honourable act from him. But you didn’t know you could do that, I think. You really thought it was a dream.” She shrugs. “The box was just you being an idiot, though. Unless you think it was theft from an altar?”
“I still don’t believe the box was an altar gift.”
“I don’t either. But at the time, I did. What really mattered to me was that you were not taking good advice. But I suppose that’s a young Vinga thing.”
Varanis gives a spluttering laugh. “Advice? Is that what you remember? I remember Serala trying to ride me into the ground and you nearly breaking my arm as you shoved my face into the earth.” She shakes her head, the smile on her face a good indication that she harbours no resentment about it. “And there was no advice leading up to it. Just relative strangers telling me no like I was a child reaching for a sweet.”
“Yeaaaaaah.” Berra finally gets her fingernail trimmed, and leans back to put the cut off bit into the fire. “The advice was ‘no’.”
Varanis shakes her head. “That’s a command, not advice. But, we’ve drifted from our topic down an old path. Let’s leave it there. How does Humakt serve Orlanth? Does he serve him?”
“That box… you have visions. Some of them are true. I wonder a bit if you should have had it, now.” Berra cleans her knife blade as she goes on, “Humakt is usually champion to Orlanth. Sometimes war leader. Sometimes the guard they leave on the Tula, but usually he leads from the front. An advisor in war.”
“And what is Orlanth to Humakt? And what do the Humakti teachings say about Vinga? What is she, to Humakt?”
“They’re mostly the same, although Vinga’s more in the stories of fighting and youth. Sometimes she’s the old King. She’s often young and untamed, a force for wildness that blows the right way. Orlanth is my master, my friend, my old enemy. I know he would never betray what he is, yet I watch constantly, because I’m Humakt, and if he falters I let him know. He knows more than me about a lot of things, because he listens to Ernalda, and I don’t have anyone to listen to except warriors and scouts. Sometimes he puts aside my advice, and sometimes he’s right to.”
Varanis nods thoughtfully. “And of the three aspects of Orlanth… does Humakt serve them all equally?”
“No. Of course not. Humakt … it’s sort of complicated what with there not being time yet, but he was an Air God once, and that part’s lost to me.”
“Why could he not be Champion and brother? Was his love for Orlanth so great that he could not be impartial unless he cut it away? Orlanth must judge and rule, but he does so as father, brother, husband, lover… his ties to others are what make him strong.”
“That’s part of it. And part was that Orlanth had done something so terrible. There are many times that Humakt can cut himself away. But he could never be a brother who wielded Death fairly. We strive to be fair. I’m really bad at that, to be honest. Humakt not being tied is what makes sure that Death … is one of the ways he uses to keep Death in its place. He’s alone, so Death doesn’t live with anyone.” Berra winces only a bit as she works her way through the convolutions.
“And yet, battalions with their inherent communities, seem to be central to the lives of many Humakti. So alone, but not alone? Cut off, but in companionship?”
“It helps to keep busy,” Berra says with a sudden smile that looks oddly unlike her. “It depends a bit. The lords? They have their own rooms, not the dormitory. And they don’t really mingle much. And if Lord D’Val died, I wouldn’t shed a tear. I’d be proud for him, because he couldn’t die except he went well. Even when we like someone, we strive not … it’s not dislike, but not to be affected. The really important thing is not to be swayed because you have feelings for someone, love or hate.”
“I see. My emotions, they drive me in many ways and I suppose I could not truly say that I could make a decision free of emotion. But I do know that sometimes I have to make decisions in spite of what I feel. I feel the need to do right by the people under my care, and so it drives me to do better. The love I feel for my kin and my friends, it gives me strength.” She chews her lower lip thoughtfully. “When honour and love come into conflict… that makes things difficult. But honour still guides me to the right decision and love gives me the strength to make it, even if doing so will hurt.” She sighs. “In the end, acting with honour is the best way to also act in love.” Her lips twitch up in a wry smile. “Though at least one of my cousins would disagree.”
“Yeah, I know. I fall short where that’s concerned. Wanting to help, to stop people from dying for nothing, drove me to be a Humakti. I didn’t choose it through being able to cut off. I didn’t choose it early, even. And my friends make me a better warrior. But for me, that’s a thing that’ll pass. I’ll get good enough that I can protect everyone. That I don’t need to bolster myself – I’ll just be able to do it. That’s what a Rune Lord of Humakt is. Honour first, because that’s the right thing. And love isn’t really part of it.”
Varanis looks a little sad at that, but doesn’t argue.
“Being cut off doesn’t mean lonely, though. You no longer need to have people, as well as not having them.” Berra looks at her nail, and grimaces. “So in some ways, choosing to serve Orlanth is, I think, like what you’re saying. Honour is all, but the choice of who to throw in with, of which way of doing it, is the reason to keep going. It’s pointless being honourable alone in the wilderness. Better to find the right thing to do and do it. And Orlanth is the right thing to do.”
“As you say,” Varanis agrees softly. “I will miss you, as you are. And I will miss this. But there’s enough love in me that I can miss it for both of us.”
Berra snort-laughs quietly. “Yeah, fair enough. But it does mean that you can get a Humakt who isn’t a champion. It happens a lot. Humakt alone. Orlanth hasn’t found him yet, or they never take each other’s measure. One of those, a good one, makes about the best mercenary you can buy, but not all of them stay bought.”
“Are you my champion?” The question, asked so seriously but so softly, underscores her vulnerability. “Am I worthy of that? Am I capable of the work I am called to?” The irony of asking these questions when only a few short nights ago, Berra struggled with similar ones, is lost on Varanis.
“I think so. I haven’t said it, because it hasn’t been clear to me, but it’s been worth following you to find out if you’re worth following.” Berra looks back at Varanis. “That’s why I’m finding it hard to think about the future. I don’t know if I can be there for you, as you find your way. I don’t know how I will be, so I can’t make the decision. But you are.”
“Some days, I believe it. But at other times, I get lost inside myself and the questions and doubts plague me like ghosts that refuse to move on.” She sighs and shakes her head to clear it. “What guard shift do you want me on?”
“Yeah. It’s getting closer. You need to know when you’re in charge and when you’re just arguing. And I said that wrong too. Um. I don’t know that I know the word. But some things you’re allowed to rule on, by right, and it’s hard to tell what they are, and often people will disagree.” Berra sucks at her finger. “I think you go on with Turas, probably. Let him have a thwing at you.”
This last gets a raised eyebrow, but no comment.
“Oh. I finished those votives for you. Do you want them now or in the morning?”
“He says he doesn’t speak Esrolian, or at least signalled he didn’t. And it’s better to have Venna inside your circle facing out, than outside facing in,” Berra adds. “Give them to me now and then I’ll have them and not have to think about them tomorrow. Hurry up, then wait.”
With a nod, the Esrolian unfolds her limbs and twists in place to reach her pack. She withdraws a bundle wrapped in a scrap of hide and passes it over.
Berra unwraps it to check them, holding her forefinger out of the way. “I cut myself with my dagger,” she says. “Or else tore the nail trying to cut it. Best not get blood on this.”
Within the hide, there are two identical offerings. Each consists of a sort of necklace. The central pendant is a rear foot, dehydrated by the magics of the Praxian who prepared the hide. On either side are two large teeth, held apart from each other by sets of knots. It could, if necessary, be worn by a person, but the length of the cord suggests it is meant for someone larger than an average human.
Berra nods. “Thank you. I’ll present these. It’s appropriate to note that Death comes to all things.”
“I’ve designed it such that it can be hung on a wall, or placed on an altar, as needed.”
“It’s got a lot of the teeth,” Berra says. “Does Rajar have enough left to make his helmet cover?”
“Did you see how many teeth that thing had?”
“I ended up mostly near the swishy bit at the back,” Berra says. “Did the skin go… I mean, did you award the skin to anyone?”
Varanis blinks. “I haven’t thought about it. No one asked me and, to be honest, I was rather focused on the teeth.”
“If it goes to Suuraki, then he could have armour made of it, and then he’d have armour.” Berra runs her fingers over one of the claws and shudders a bit.
“He needs armour,” Varanis agrees. “And it was his leg that the thing tried to eat. It’s a good idea.”
“Yeah. I… I mean, I did it a lot of damage, but I really couldn’t have taken that risk unless he had already been hurt. And he got hurt.”
“I’ll ask Suuraki if he wants the hide made into armour. Do you need anything else from me? Otherwise, I might rest a while before my guard shift.”
Berra shakes her head. “You get just before dawn, so you can be there to greet Yelm. I’ll go let Toras know.” She folds up the hide carefully and stands. “See you tomorrow, Orlanth.”
Berra receives a vague wave as Varanis turns back to stare into the darkness. “Soon. I’ll sleep soon,” she says, though it’s not clear if she’s speaking to Berra or herself.