A Mercurial Mood

1627, Sea Season, Harmony Week




The morning after their late-night troll visit, Varanis encourages everyone to pack up camp quickly so they can return to Dangerford and Irillo’s caravan as soon as possible. There’s an urgency to her that is almost impossible to ignore.

Berra has little to pack up – she travels very compact. But she does that, and checks everything on Followed, and checks it again, and then goes out forward and left, keeping that side of the terrain under her eye.

The Vingan rides up beside her. “Why are we always so slow?” she asks. The question is muttered and may or may not have been directed at Berra.

The little Humakti glances over at Varanis, which she can do when on bisonback. “Safest?” she suggests, almost wistfully.

Varanis sighs. “For whom? I mean, I know Irillo got to Dangerford safely, because Nala says so. But… I need to make sure. And to find out what he plans to do with little Argrath. And figure out how we’re going to get to Alda Chur safely. Is it wise to bring the caravan? Should Irillo head for a safer trade route? If so, we’ll need to deal with the Prince’s gifts.” She frets. “I don’t like not having a plan.”

“Garth, not Argrath,” Berra says. “Slightly different word. And yeah, I’m thinking about that. I think we can get through, but we shouldn’t bring Irillo. And if we go through Runegate, that takes us a long way out. I’m thinking across the land to Alda Chur would be best. Gifts packed onto the animals that are fast.”

This gets a curt nod. “I don’t like it, but it makes sense. I wish Xenofos would darken his zebra. I don’t like the attention it’s getting us either.”

“If he won’t, we can buy him a horse in Dangerford. Or a bison. That would be funny but maybe not ki–nice.” Berra keeps on looking. “I want to get the people with bows around here on our side more. So any extras we don’t have, I mean, any space we have, sorry, we fill with food. We could probably bring Irillo, to be honest, but … damnit. The gifts would be a target. Will he know we’ve got the gifts?”

“I don’t know. How good are his spies?”

“Good. Very good. He knew what would draw out Lord Eril, and he was in the city to make things go wrong for the Lightbringers’ Quest, I think. He’s a planner, and he’s got access to … well, I don’t know. But someone has access to this, so someone like him will know. We don’t have the animals for decoys, really. But we could go along the Creek, up pass Skull Ruins, and I think you can get to Alda Chur that way. Or even to the River. It’s not nice country, but it’s… well, nothing’s nice. There are ways.”

Varanis frowns. “Curse him. If we separate from Irillo, we can move faster and cover more difficult terrain. But we lose the benefit of the cover the caravan provides. Mind you, it’s not cover at all, if our plans are already known. In that case, flexibility and speed become more important.”

“We need speed now, because we’ve lost a few days, and Irillo… well, I kind of assume Boldhome knows what’s going on here, but he might want to go back and tell people.” Berra gives Varanis a quick glance. “Question – do we want to try to tell Alone about the zebras?”

“How far out of our way is Alone?”

“It’s a day’s ride from Herongreen, and I have no idea what Herongreen is like. But there are displaced people here, and they could do with money, and maybe some of them don’t hate the Praxians. If Xenofos wrote something and that got taken, there are shrines at Herongreen and a herald could go along the road, probably.”

“Yes. Excellent idea. People need warning. The fyrds should probably be called up.” Varanis scowls. “I don’t like Onjur. One of these days we need to kill him and make sure he stays that way.”

“He needs to know – Venna probably, if she’s around – that Onjur’s stirring up trouble like that. But this is beyond just fyrds. When the peasants are hiding, their homes are not safe. I think we should get guides across the Donalf Flats. Go from the Creek to the River, or the Creek to Alda Chur. We might not be able to take the biggest animals up to the Far Pl… to Alda Chur directly, but it’s close enough. Go out sunsetward and come back a bit. And let people know. Onjur tries to break people apart.”

Varanis considers, then agrees. “Rajar was saying the same back in Boldhome. You might also want to send word back the your High Sword. Just in case one of the Uz turns up with Onjur’s head. We can be hopeful.”

“When we get back to Dangerford, yes. Maybe Xenofos shouldn’t write the message down for Argrath, though. It would be dangerous to someone cau… alright, they’d be dead already if they were caught with it. Hmmm…” Berra, out of her depth when it comes to writing, flounders to an island in the river of ideas, and stops there.

“Maybe we need someone who can carry an unwritten message, instead. Never engrave a tablet with something you don’t want the Librarian to read.” That last is in Esrolian and carries the weight of an old adage.

“The people here, still. Someone in the woods. If we pay them, whether they are convinced or not, they probably will. And my voice is a lot like theirs so they were listening. If we get the… we could go past Herongreen if we dropped riseward about now. But I … I think that would be a bad idea. That’s putting the main battle aside to do a small thing and that’s wrong.” As fast as she picked that one up, Berra drops it.

“Either on the road or in Dangerford, we can find someone to carry warnings locally. Or, if Irillo does part ways with us, as seems likely, we can ask him to make sure that word is spread where it needs to be. Let Tennebris know what’s going on and he can decide if and how to send word to Argrath.” Varanis considers. “Hmmm…. You’ve been able to communicate with the High Sword before, haven’t you? Could you pass the message to him through prayer?”

“Yeah.” Berra looks around. “Kind of. I don’t think he hears prayers, but when I contact him as a Hero, he does. Only he really doesn’t want me to give away what he is while he’s vulnerable. I think prayer is… I think Divination is safe, but it would be that or nothing. And if I do it, it shouldn’t be in a Temple. I could make a place holy, but it’s all the god’s power I might not have after that.” All a calculation of when she might need to kill people.

“Right. So we save that in case we have no better alternative,” Varanis agrees readily. She stares at Zukko’s ears before adding, “I don’t think I could get word to Tennebris that way. It’s got to be a messenger from Dangerford then. I’d prefer it to be Irillo, so we didn’t have to ask anyone else, but I don’t know if he’d be willing to retrace his steps. Bad for trade.”

“Worse to be caught out in this. He could go through Apple Lane. It’s the way to Runegate, and the other way he’d want to go. Or just maybe to the Blue Tree and go down to come into Boldhome the other way. That’s terrible for trading, though.” Berra stands in her saddle, to see a little further. If she cannot be tall, she will be high.

“He…. he might find Serala in Apple Lane. She’s thane there now, as she reminded me a time or two.” A wistful look crosses the Esrolian’s face. “She could carry word to Boldhome swiftly.”

“Faster if we send word from Jonstown on the way, but she is there. We might meet her.” Berra seems unfazed by that.

“I’m confused. Serala’s not likely to be in Jonstown…. is she?” Varanis can’t quite keep the hope from her voice.

“No, Apple Lane. But we’d go through Jonstown first. We might well be able to spend the night in Apple Lane if we went that way, but it’d depend on whether we find guides.” Berra looks over to her right, and scowls at most of the landscape there, standing again to have more to scowl at.

The hope fades as Varanis considers. “I… no. No dallying in Apple Lane unless it is the best way to Alda Chur. There is an urgency to what we are doing and I won’t mess this up. I can’t afford it.”

“Yeah. I know. We check first. We take the Donalf Flats and the Creek if we can.” Berra shrugs. “Maybe you’ll get lucky. But it’s up to the people we meet again on the way back down.”

Varanis nods. “It’s fine. The gods work as they do, and my task is to serve them and my Prince.”

“Look out for people to send as messengers and ask about guides.” Berra gives Varanis a quick look. As she looks away, her nervousness is clear. She is a worried woman.1V passed insight. “We’re going to want to know as much as we can.”

Varanis studies Berra. “Trust the gods to see us through,” she says, attempting to reassure her companion. “We need to be quick and clever. Watchful, as always. But trust in the gods.”

“Yeah.” Berra relaxes a bit. “Humakt could. I can.” That seems to have done the trick. “There is no use in worrying. We work with what we’ve got.” Her look returns to the landscape to the left. “Um.”

Varanis follows her gaze.

“So.” Berra takes a deep breath. “Thanks for letting … for making me and Xenofos talk.” It might be that she has paused or she might be done.

This earns a smile. “It needed mending.”

“I’ve never been in command before. Not in a war. I’ve always had someone else above me.” Berra squirms in the saddle, physically as uncomfortable as her speech.

“You’re good at it, though,” Varanis observes. “You know what people do and how to use their skills. You don’t freeze up when the pressure is on.”

Berra nods a tiny bit. “Yeah. But I’ve got to get it right fast.” She shrugs. “It’s not the … it’s not knowing what all the bits are. I think better in action than before it. It’s a problem with me. I want to get into action – that’s when I find things out as fast as I use them.”

“Field command… I’m no good at it. Not like you are, anyway. I don’t know how to react when the plan falls apart.” Varanis flushes as she admits this, but doesn’t allow herself to hide from it. “I put people’s lives at risk needlessly.”

Berra sighs. Heavily. “We all get used to it by doing it, I guess. Some people get taught, but that takes time. Faster to learn and get it right the second time.”

“Getting it right the second time doesn’t undo the damage. It doesn’t bring people back.” The Vingan shakes her head. “I know that I have a responsibility to lead well. I’m not trying to shirk that responsibility in the wake of past failures. But, I have to make the right choices and that means relying on people who know what they are doing. And not undermining them when they are doing what I’ve asked them to do. I’ve been thinking a lot since the village. I have not always been respectful of you. I’ve expected you to command, but I haven’t always waited for your instructions. I will try to do better. I need to set an example for others to follow.”

“Kinda. I need to lead through you. If it all goes right, we have time for me to tell you what to tell me, and to tell other people. And if not, us all piling in isn’t so bad. Being Orlanth isn’t disrespect. It’s being Orlanth. You’ve got to rebel, and laugh, and lead.” Berra waves her hands. Followed plods on without the need for reins.

“Yes and no. Young Vinga holds my heart. But Orlanth Rex commands my actions now. I have to be mindful of that and seek balance between them.”

“Yeah. I… I’d been meaning to ask a thing, but it’s sort of private. But I think it might help.” The Humakti’s uncomfortable wriggling becomes an uncomfortable facial expression. This is awkward to her.

Varanis raises an eyebrow expectantly.

“You’re worried about being judged. I think. You were taking… um.” Berra blurts out even while she is trying to work out what to say.

“Just blurt the rest of it and be done? I’ll try not to let my feelings get wounded.”

“You’re scared of being judged or something, or of SOMETHING, but you didn’t tell me. You wouldn’t. Um, I was quite upset at the time too. But whatever that is, I think it would help to show it to Yelm.” Berra does look at Varanis then, prepared to do that.

Varanis laughs, though it’s not entirely a happy sound. “I’m going to need you to narrow down a time frame. Is this about events back at the village? Or back in Boldhome? Or… well. It could be almost any time.”

“Up at the flame. And talking about it. It’s like there’s someone sitting behind you and watching you weave and telling you all the mistakes you’ve put in, and you’re afraid of them. But I don’t think that’s me. Quite. But I … is it one person?” Berra almost puzzles through what she says as she says it, like she is making up her guess as she goes along.

“Have you ever known what it feels like to be found wanting? To know that no matter what you do, it’ll never be right?” The Vingan responds to the question with questions of her own.

Berra thinks about that. “I thought so, for a while. But never by people I cared about. So maybe not like you’re thinking?”

Varanis nods. “I could never do things right. Could never be what my grandmother wanted me to be. At least not the way she wanted me to be. It’s a difficult feeling to shake.” She doesn’t look at Berra as she speaks, preferring instead to stare at the space between Zukko’s ears.

“Huh. There is your Yelm, right there. That is what Rebellion is for.” Berra draws the Rune of Movement with her finger, on Followed’s shoulder fur. It does not speed her up.

“I am sorry that my actions hurt our Tribe, Berra. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said that morning. It wasn’t just selfishness on my part. It was a betrayal of your trust. You were right to be angry with me.”

“Nah, not important. I mean, it is but not now. And it’s good of you to say. But when that voice tells you you’re not good enough, it is the Sky court you’re not good enough for. And they’re not good enough for you.” She looks really determined when she says that.

She receives only a nod in reply.

“Nobody expects Orlanth to kill Yelm, and then he does, and grows up. But even Orlanth doesn’t really know until it happens. You’re stepping away. But when you hear that, it’s Yelm, and he wants to stay as he is. We’re Movement, not Stasis. We’re Sartar.” Berra stops talking, and looks back over the hills and forests.

“I’ll try to remember that.”

Berra leaves Varanis alone now, and gets back to concentrating on the land.

  • 1
    V passed insight.