Chamber of Secrets

Chamber of Secrets (
-   Novella (
-   -   Sasamara (

Melaszka August 30th, 2009 10:51 pm

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Amara Gadan had known from the moment that he arrived out of breath for morning surgery, twenty minutes late again, that it was going to be a bad day. A bigger crowd than normal had gathered in the village square with the usual ragbag of problems that required magical help – minor illnesses and injuries that needed healing, alleged curses that needed breaking, household utensils, farm tools and building materials that needed magical reinforcement, as well as emotional problems that weren’t strictly within the Amaraha’s remit, but which usually ended up being confided to a magical ear, anyway.

Doleful and faintly accusing glances fell on the young man as he discreetly rearranged his robes, which he’d flung on as he flew out of the door, and took up his seat in the centre of the square, stowing his sack at his feet. He was under no illusions that he was a popular figure in the village of Manada Yin: the comments which his patients frequently muttered contemptuously under their breath were not lost on him. He knew that most of them didn’t consider him a “proper Amaraha” –he was too young, too recently out of college, too slapdash (and he was aware that his seeming inability to arrive at surgery on time was doing little to counter that impression), and above all too male. But ultimately he was the only Amaraha for miles around, so they came to him, anyway. He only hoped that over time he would come to win their respect. Eventually.

“Who’s first?” he called, in a falsely chirpy voice, trying not to feel depressed and intimidated by the lengthy queue that snaked its way around the square.

An old man shuffled forward and began to confide the problems that he had been having with hariki. They burrowed underneath his border fence at night, he explained, and gnawed at his crops. He had already lost so much kada and girtek to the little creatures that he didn’t know how he was going to get through the winter.

Gadan breathed a little sigh of relief. At least he knew how to deal with this one without having to embarrass himself by consulting a book or seeking advice from another Amaraha. Hariki infestations were a common problem in these parts, and he dealt with them at surgeries most weeks. Without a word he plunged a hand into his sack and drew out a dozen little metal balls. Enclosing one in each fist, he tried to block out the noises and smells emanating from the queue and put all his concentration into transferring power from his body into the metal spheres. Once he’d roused his power to full strength, it was hard not to be distracted by the thoughts of the people surrounding him which echoed in his head as loudly as if fifty people were shouting in his ear, but power transfer was something he excelled at, and he knew it. It wasn’t long before twelve balls of power were buzzing with his energy. He swiftly wrapped them in a piece of cloth and handed them to the old man, with a grin.

“Bury these under your perimeter fence – about a foot deep and equidistant apart. With luck they should last until spring and that’s the last you’ll see of the little blighters. When the power starts to wear off, come back again and I’ll recharge them.”

The old man’s face broke into a toothless grin, and he bobbed his little head up and down in gratitude.

“Well,” thought Gadan, “That’s one satisfied customer, at least.”

The old man had already turned to go and Gadan was on the verge of calling “Next!” when a large-bosomed woman on his right piped up in an icy voice, “Amara Sukat used to go and talk to them.”

Immediately, a murmuring broke out amongst the gathered crowd, with several bystanders commenting, “No good just giving him a bunch of metal balls. What’s that going to do?” or “Why doesn’t he speak to the hariki? I’m no Amaraha, but even I know that’s how you deal with hariki problems!” or “Well, that’s what you get when they let men into the Amaraha.”

Gadan flushed. He hadn’t even contemplated communicating with the creatures, mainly because animal communication had always been his weakest point at college. Reading books on it made little difference - you either had the knack or you didn’t, and he, unfortunately, like most of the small minority of male Amaraha, most emphatically did not.

It shouldn’t matter. Using kuyra was an equally effective way of approaching the problem, and he’d always been taught to play to his strengths – don’t worry about the skills you can’t master, you can usually work out just as good a solution by applying the ones you can. But out in this grim outpost in the wilds of the North-East, where the gospel according to the late Amara Sukat obviously reigned supreme, it was difficult to retain confidence in his own way of doing things. Somehow these know-all peasants managed to make him feel like an incompetent novice on a weekly basis. Now the toothless old man, who a moment ago had looked as if he were about to cry with gratitude, looked uncertain, and for a moment Gadan feared he would thrust the kuyra back in his hands and tell him he could keep them, that he didn’t trust his methods.

“Hey!” shouted out a young woman a few rows back in the crowd, who was clutching a baby to her chest. “The balls are good! Amaraha gave some to me six, maybe seven weeks ago, and I’ve seen no hariki since!”

“Me, too!” yelled a barrel-chested man with a long black beard, standing towards the edge of the square. “Amaraha fixed my hariki fine! Got rid of muguyti, too.”

There was more muttering and some shoving across the square. For a moment Gadan feared that a pitched battle would break out between those who were pro-kuyra and those who were anti.

But the old man, handling the bundle of kuyra with reverence, like it was a priceless treasure, cleared his throat and announced to the gathering, “To tell you the truth, Amara Sukat – rest her soul – talked to the hariki time and time again, but it did no good. Not her fault – I reckon the hariki I got up my farm must be deaf. I’m happy to try whatever young Amaraha here suggests. “

He bowed again and left the square, the clamour died down and there was even a smattering of applause.

The next few patients were straightforward cases – children running mild fevers, cuts and broken bones that hadn’t healed properly, stomach problems. All he had to do was lay his hands on the affected part and let the power rush out. Some of the patients looked suspicious, as if they expected the effects to wear off after about half-an-hour or so, but there didn’t seem to be any wild divergence between Gadan’s method and his predecessor’s, and he wasn’t given too much advice on how he could be doing it better.

He was beginning to think that the day might be looking up, when suddenly a piercing cry rent the air. There was something about the nature of the cry that chilled Gadan to the pit of his stomach. Instantly, he knew that whatever had made that cry must be terribly injured.

All eyes in the square turned to the street leading in from the east, from whence the cry came, down which was now crawling a kind of creature like nothing Gadan had ever seen before. His first thought was that it must be some kind of sea creature, that the craters that pitted its mottled purple flesh were gills for breathing underwater. Then he remembered that he was now hundreds of miles from the coast.

It wasn’t a conscious choice to get up from the stone seat in the middle of the square and move in its direction, but his healer’s instinct impelled him, and he found himself almost sleep-walking towards the injured beast. The peasants packing the square moved aside to let him pass, those nearest the creature recoiling in fear and disgust from the beast itself.

It was only when he squatted beside it, and looked into its eyes, that Gadan realised with a shock that left him physically winded that they were human eyes, that its pitted mauve blubber was human flesh, grotesquely swollen and discoloured with disease.

His healer’s instinct again led him to lay hands on its skin, to will as much of his power as he could into its sick body, even though he sensed instantly that it was hopeless, and not just for a novice Amaraha such as himself – he doubted even Samara Yirak herself would be able to do much in a case like this. As he felt the charge from his palm and fingertips penetrate the creature’s skin, its eyes widened in alarm and it let out a rasping whine.

Struggling to drag itself into an upright position, it muttered what sounded like human words, but so faint and distorted by pain that they were impossible to comprehend. Gadan knelt on the ground, oblivious to the deep red dust staining his robes, and strained to hear what the creature was saying.

“No!” it breathed, every syllable a massive effort. “Kill! Please!”

“It’s all right,” murmured Gadan, as reassuringly as he could. “This will help.”

“No!” hissed the creature, desperate with terror. “He awakes!”

Gadan stared at it, bemused for a second, before springing to his feet in stunned realisation of what the creature was saying. Surely that was impossible?

“Stand back!” he yelled to the assembled villagers. “Back, I say!” he repeated more forcefully, when they didn’t move, as he threw out a gentle field of power around himself and the disfigured human in front of him, forcing them to retreat.

Then he retreated himself to the very perimeter of the force field he had just created, closed his eyes as he chanted, summoning up energy from every part of his body into his fingertips, praying he would have enough. Finally, he raised his arms above his head then brought them down sharply, flinging a blazing thunderbolt of power at the creature. It hit it square in the face, and the unfortunate creature was reduced to ashes within seconds

Melaszka August 31st, 2009 11:07 pm

Re: Sasamara
Note: The connection between this chapter and the previous one is not immediately obvious, but please have faith and read on. It is the same story, and all will become clear a few chapters down the line.

“Oh, bum!” screamed Liz, in frustration, as the carrier bag in her hand split, sending tins of beans, a bottle of juice and a packet of sanitary towels cascading across the pavement, only yards from her front door. That was just after the double decker bus had deliberately gathered speed as it slogged through the puddle in the gutter next to her, spraying her freshly laundered jeans with mud.

The day was going from bad to worse. Julie, the psychopathic boss from hell, had taken micro-management to a whole new level today, calling Liz into her office, first thing, to reveal that she had been snooping through Liz’s desk drawers the previous evening after Liz had gone home, and was unhappy about the untidy state of the notes which Liz kept there. The private notes, which Liz made for herself when on the ‘phone or the Internet, researching the information she needed in her role as editorial assistant for Allingham’s Handbook of Theatre. Why, Julie wondered, did she not use a ruler when underlining? Did she know how sloppy it looked? And wasn’t her disgusting handwriting totally illegible? How did she expect anyone to read it?

“I’m the only one who’s supposed to read it!” thought Liz. “These are my notes, to aid my memory, my research. No-one else needs to read them (except, apparently, for nosy, mad, control-freak bosses with nothing better to do with their time than spy on their employees’ private belongings). And they’re perfectly legible to me!”

But she knew better than to argue the point – Julie expected blind subservience from her underlings, not rational debate.

“I’m sorry, Julie,” mumbled Liz, mechanically. “I didn’t know what your expectations were. Now that I do, I shall do my utmost to comply with them.”

“Well, just so’s you’re clear, I shall be checking up on this,” iterated Julie, sanctimoniously, leaning back in her leather swivel chair and sucking on the lid of her silver ballpoint. “We are a professional outfit here, and we expect professional behaviour from all our editorial staff.”

“All our editorial staff”, Hester, Niall and Shahida, sympathised with Liz, when she told them during the lunch break, once Julie had left the building, but she knew they weren’t going to make a stand on her behalf. Malicious murmuring behind Julie’s back was the order of the day at Allingham’s, but no-one ever confronted the beast directly. They valued their own jobs too much.

“I’ve been taking my paperwork home in my handbag every night for five years,” confided Hester, blinking earnestly through her horn-rimmed spectacles. “I know she goes through my things after I’ve gone, and heaven only knows what she’d say about my stuff, if she ever saw it.”

“She pays the wages, she calls the shots,” shrugged Niall, his calm, soft Irish brogue making light of the incident. “Seems crazy to me, too, but if she asked me to input the data standing on my head, I’d do it, so I would. You’ve just got to keep your head down and do what the lady says.”

Easy for him to say. Everybody knew that he was Julie’s blue-eyed boy, who could do no wrong.

Shahida was more sympathetic than most, but Liz hadn’t made a song and dance when Julie had docked Shahida’s wages for “lateness” the previous week (despite the fact that the train she had been on being terminated on account of a suicide on the line was completely beyond Shahida’s control), so she knew she couldn’t expect Shahida to intervene when Julie continued to hover around Liz’s desk throughout the day, pointedly reading her notes over her shoulder and tutting when she attempted to underline anything without reaching for a ruler.

Now, as she fumbled with her keys at the door to the building where she lived, all she wanted to do was to curl up in bed with a good book and try to forget about the dead-end job she was stuck in.

But the day from hell hadn’t finished with her yet. A loury council official in a luminous orange tabard suddenly appeared from nowhere and began to lecture her about the unsightly pile of rubbish outside the front door. Liz tried to explain that, yes, she wholeheartedly agreed with him that the mess was unacceptable, that she understood that rubbish should be put out only on Tuesdays between the hours of 6- 7pm, but that there were five other flats in this building other than her own and the illicitly dumped refuse had nothing to do with her, but he was having none of that. He continued to mouth abuse at her and threaten her with a steep fine if she couldn’t control the appearance of refuse in the street.

After what seemed like an age, she finally made it into the dingy vestibule, with its curious blend or aromas of boiled cabbage, mildewed carpet and stale tobacco, and made it up the three flights to her flat.

“Hi, darling!” her flatmate, Dmitry, called out as she staggered in with an armful of groceries. He was standing at the stove, stirring a pot of some kind of steaming liquid. “How was your day?”

“Don’t ask!” she begged, waving him away, as she dumped the goods on the kitchen table. The aroma emanating from his side of the kitchen caught her attention. “Hmm, something smells good.”

“It’s my utterly divine carrot and coriander soup. You must try some!” And before she could make a polite refusal, he had handed her a bowl of something fragrant, with a spoon and a hunk of home-baked rustic seed bread. Perhaps things were looking up.

“Gorgeous!” she nodded approvingly, after tasting some. She was far hungrier than she had thought. She paused to savour the earthy combination of flavours before remembering to ask, “How was your day?”

“Not bad,” Dmitry grinned. “I got loads of translation done. I was a good little boy and worked from 9 to 5, for once, with no distractions. That new agency got back to me and they seem very pleased with the work I’ve done for them so far, so there should be plenty more in the pipeline.”

“I’m glad someone’s life’s going according to plan,” smiled Liz, scraping the inside of the bowl with a piece of bread and wondering if it would be cheeky to ask for a second helping.

“Things are going to come together for you very soon,” he reassured her, playfully wagging his finger at her, “Just you wait and see!” but she found it hard to believe him.

“I’ve just got the wrong kind of personality,” she complained. “People don’t seem to take me seriously. Wherever I go, I seem to turn into the company punchbag. Complete strangers seem to think they can wipe the floor with me.”

“You’ve got a lovely personality,” Dmitry insisted firmly. “You just need to stand up for yourself a bit more, that’s all.”

Liz’s shoulders sagged despondently. “But I don’t have a skill that people really need. I wish I could be a firefighter or a forensic pathologist or a brain surgeon or something. Do you ever dream about being really important? About being entrusted with responsibility? About people looking to you for all the answers and gazing up at you with awe and respect?”

But Dmitry’s eyes had glazed over with incomprehension and he rapidly changed the subject, as he always did when people tried to discuss anything which wasn’t all sweetness and light. “Not really, sweetheart, no. In fact, not at all. I just dream about being able to afford that divine Moschino t-shirt I’ve been coveting for weeks. That’s all I want out of my work – the money to buy nice clothes. Now,” and he moved towards the saucepan, “how about some more soup before I head out clubbing?”

Melaszka September 2nd, 2009 6:50 pm

Re: Sasamara
“You did well, Amara Gadan,” iterated the voice of Samara Yirak, deep inside Gadan’s head. “Do not torture yourself with pointless recriminations. The woman would have died, no matter what, and had you not acted when you did, hundreds may have died with her.”

The Samaraha had communicated with him by mind transfer several times since the incident had happened - mostly, of course, to question him and glean what knowledge she could to prepare a strategy for dealing with this new, unthinkable threat, but also repeatedly to reassure him that he had done the right thing and had nothing to reproach himself for.

Logically, Gadan knew that his superior was speaking the truth, but he still felt physically sick when he recalled the choking smell of roasting flesh that had tainted the square for hours after the death, and he still felt numb disbelief at the thought that he, who had wanted passionately to be a healer for as long as he could remember, had actually taken a life, and not saved it. It had been several days before his victim had been identified as An Muygali, a seventeen-year-old girl, apprenticed to a baker. The fact that the inhuman engorged purple figure he had encountered and killed in the square had turned out to be so young, younger even than the novice Amaraha himself, made it even more painful for him.

Ironically, through seven long years of training, during which he’d been the class clown, who’d failed to distinguish himself at anything, he had craved Samara Yirak’s praise and would have gone to any lengths to win it. Yet now, when her fulsome praise was so forthcoming, he would give anything to turn the clock back and be plain old bumbling, clumsy Gadan once again, rather than have to face up to the reality of what had happened in that square.

He had tried to keep to his hut as much as possible in the days following the annihilation spell. He had had to supervise the burial of An Muygali’s remains, of course. Although the white-hot flames that had burst from his fingertips should have obliterated completely the poison in her body and cleansed the spot on which she fell, he had to be sure. The consequences of carelessness or complacency were too terrible to contemplate. He forbade any of the villagers to touch her ashes, moving them himself and burying them in a hole dug by two of the peasants several miles into the desert.

He also had to cleanse the street down which she had crawled to seek him out and to warn her neighbours of the peril that awaited them in the Manada forest. A dozen times or more he had walked up and down the road leading east from Manada Yin to the forest, casting flame spells to scorch the surface of the road, anxiety that there may have been a tiny patch he had missed forcing him to perform the task again and again.

Then he had to ascertain whether An Muygali could have passed the poison on to anyone else before she died. He had questioned the local peasants relentlessly, and as far as he could ascertain, she had spoken to no-one, touched no-one, between walking into the forest to pick berries the previous evening and her dramatic entrance to the square during his surgery. He could only hope that they were telling the truth and that there was no-one he had missed.

He was weary from carrying out these tasks. It was a heavy burden of responsibility.

“When will back-up arrive?” he asked Samaraha anxiously during their first mind transfer after the terrible incident.

“Twelve Amaraha have set out from Rali Kes immediately for Manada Yin,” she assured him. “They are travelling as quickly as they can, but you know the northern roads. It may be several days or even weeks before they reach you. We are currently gathering a stronger force to follow within days”

Gadan grimaced. He did, indeed, know the northern roads. He had been cursing them for months, ever since he himself made the long tortuous journey from the city of Rali Kes to this backwater to take up the rural posting he had so bitterly resented.

“Is there noone nearer who can be diverted to assist?” he begged, audibly panicking.

Samaraha hesitated before replying, “A party of Guaiaha are on their way from the barracks at Hadal Tuais. They should reach you in a day or two…”

“Guaiaha!” he spat, contemptuously. “Oh, wonderful! The nappy-wearers! A lot of help they’ll be! What are they going to do? Frighten him with a little war dance? Throw spears at him? I’d like to see them try! The last thing I need right now is a bunch of massive warrior egos demanding stroking, getting in my way, when I have a million and one other things to see to. Aren’t there any Amaraha in the north?”

Samara Yirak’s silence felt like a slap.

“It is not that I am lazy or that I shirk responsibility,” he added quickly, and then instantly feeling guilty, because he knew that, in the normal run of things, he was, in fact both of these things. And he knew that Samaraha knew this, too. “But I know that I am inexperienced, I know that I am not totally…ept. It is not safe to leave this to me for long. If I make even one small mistake - and I so easily could - the whole village, the whole region could…” His voice trailed off, scared to even put into words what would happen if he failed to achieve the impossible here. “Samara Yirak,” he admitted, “I can’t do this on my own. I am so afraid.”

But what Samaraha said in response scared him more than anything.

“Amara Gadan,” she replied, with a sigh. “We are all afraid.”

There was a pause as she let that sink in.

“I cannot allow any Amaraha close to the Manada border to leave their own villages. They must stay and be ready to protect their own. The evil could leave the forest by any route. You know that. Just because it has appeared first in Manada Yin does not mean it will stay there. You have read the records, I trust?”

Oh, yes, he had read the records, which went into what had seemed at the time like buttock-numbing detail about the last time that Gagayengi awoke. The millennium-old, impenetrable prose had been one of his least favourite things about college. He and many of his fellow students had dismissed it all as a fairy tale about times so distant that it could have no possible relevance to today. Gagayengi was a myth! Sasamara Karam, the heroic wielder of magic beyond compare, who had supposedly saved the land from the spread of the poisonous evil and, through her amazing powers, trapped Gagayengi in an enchanted sleep, deep within the Manada forest, probably hadn’t even existed! Perhaps there was a grain of truth in it. Perhaps there had been a rural Amaraha back in the Fourth Age who had been more effective than most at healing an unusual and deadly disease in the North – some kind of exotic plague spreading over the mountains from Insa Maha, perhaps – and the primitive folk who lived then, not having our Fifteenth Age modern understanding of infection, wove this into a tale of poison-breathing monsters and godlike heroes. But the story of an evil being in the forest who might reawaken one day was laughable. Everyone knew that Amara Yahad, the irascible, ancient Amaraha who taught the Book of Gagayengi, clung to stories from ancient history because she didn’t know much about contemporary, practical magic. Everyone thought that spending hours every week poring over the archaic language of the old text, practising the strategies and spells it described, in preparation for the legendary monster’s hypothetical Second Coming, was a waste of time that could have been used far more profitably, and Gadan had grumbled more loudly than most.

Now he just thanked the stars that the Book of Gagayengi had played such a prominent role in the syllabus and that he had paid as much attention as he did. The entire village of Manada Yin owed their lives to the fact that he had listened to Amara Yahad and taken notes.

Samara Yirak seemed to echo his thoughts. “Do not doubt yourself, Amara Gadan. If you fall into the self-indulgence of despair and doubt, then we are all lost. You are doing as much as anyone can do, as much as anyone has been able to do for more than a thousand years.”

But Gadan knew there was one last thing that he could – and ought to – do. He remembered one last detail from the Book of Gagayengi and before he lay down in his hut that night to try to snatch a little sleep, he clutched the crescent pendant which he wore round his neck, the symbol of his membership of the Amaraha, and murmured, “Oh, Sasamara Karam, help me! Come back and help us all!”

Melaszka September 4th, 2009 7:54 pm

Re: Sasamara
This has had 64 hits, so far. I'm not sure if that's 21 avid fans who have eagerly devoured every instalment or (more likely) 64 different people who've read about half the first chapter and thought "Meh! Can't be bothered with this." I may post some more and start a feedback thread, if I have time and can be bothered, but if anyone likes it enough to actively want more, drop me an owl or a note on my profile page, so I know there's the demand for it. Thanks. Mx


Liz woke up, fighting for breath. She must have had a bad dream. She still had a nauseous, giddy sensation in her head, similar to the feeling she used to get, as a child, when she span round too long in the same direction in the school playground. She hoped she wasn’t coming down with something – time taken off sick would be yet another thing for Julie to hold against her. And, yet, she’d felt all right when she’d gone to bed. Tired and fed up, yes, but not a hint of a headache or temperature.

What was the time now? She felt as if she had slept for hours, but it was still pitch black around her. In fact, too black. In the world she inhabited of neon signs and brassy orange London street lighting, this total absence of light was unnatural. She could not even make out the shadows of furniture in her room. How very, very odd. Perhaps there had been a power cut that had taken out all the street lights on the block?

She stretched out her hand to see if the bedside light was working, and, to her utter surprise, her fingers encountered….grass? That couldn’t be right! She felt around her, expecting to discover that what she had taken for grass was merely a pot plant she had forgotten she had or a badly pilled sweater discarded by the side of the bed, expecting her fingers to alight upon the usual mess of papers and books that littered the floor of her room, or to graze her knuckles against the side of her desk, but all she felt was more grass, to her right hand side, and to her left, what felt like compacted earth. What is more, she gradually became aware of an ache in her back and realised that she was lying on a hard surface, not the downy mattress of her usual bed.

She went rigid with shock. She was no longer in her bedroom, but in the open air, in the middle of nowhere. What was happening? Intruders? Could she have been drugged and abducted? But how? Surely she would have woken up when they tried to administer the drugs to her? Having said that, she’d heard rumours when she was interrailing of European criminal gangs, who filled the carriages with anaesthetic gas, and then robbed the passengers of money and valuables, while they slept on unaware. Could someone have gassed her in her bedroom without her knowing, and then spirited her away and left her miles from London, on some muddy farm track? But why? Not for her money, surely: she didn’t have any. She didn’t feel like she’d been assaulted. She could feel no pain, no bruises, no discomfort anywhere. Had her clothes been disturbed?

Her disquiet deepened, as she realised she was no longer wearing her pyjamas. Instead, she was dressed in outdoor clothes – some kind of long robes, tied with a sash beneath her breasts, covered by a heavy, scratchy, woollen cloak. Even more curiously, she was wearing jewellery: a kind of chunky pendant on a chain around her neck, which felt as if it were a semicircular shape, and a heavy ring, set with a large stone, on the middle finger on her right hand. She now felt completely baffled. What kind of criminal would anaesthetise you and abduct you from your bed, only to leave you in a lonely spot with more clothes than he found you with, and actually give you jewellery? Wasn’t that kind of the reverse of what criminals were meant to do?

This couldn’t really be happening. Was she still asleep, still dreaming? She breathed a sigh of relief. Of course! That seemed the only possible explanation. Perhaps she should just run with it and see where it took her? Sooner or later, she would wake up. Why not just play along with it?

Well, she couldn’t just lie here all night, until her alarm clock at home went off. She might as well explore her surroundings. She struggled to an upright position and gingerly tested the ground around her with her foot. As she had suspected, she had been lying on the edge of a beaten earth road, next to a grass verge. As well as the robes and the cloak she had noticed earlier, she also seemed to be wearing a pair of woven rope sandals on her feet. Although she still couldn’t see her own hand in front of her face, it was so dark, she thought that by sticking to the verge and feeling her way forward with her feet, she could probably make it a little distance along the road without encountering too many mishaps.

She walked tentatively, shuffling her way forward at first with reticent baby steps, but as she gradually got the hang of it, eventually striding off at quite a pace. In fact, she got too confident after a bit, and at one point tripped over a tussock of grass, landing flat on her face in the road, at another point nearly falling into a ditch which suddenly appeared where the grass verge had been, but overall she didn’t do too badly, and as time passed by, she managed to cover quite a bit of ground.

She seemed to have been walking for hours, without passing people or traffic, and was just beginning to think to herself, “What a boring dream! I must remember to eat cheese just before going to bed tomorrow night, because, quite frankly, I’d rather have nightmares,” when she noticed that she could faintly discern lights far ahead.

At first, they were just tiny dots on the horizon, but as she approached, they gradually became larger and clearer until eventually she could see that they were lanterns lighting the façade of a large, timber-framed building. She wondered if it would be possible to ask for food and shelter here, but instantly dismissed the thought, assuming that whoever lived here would not be best pleased at being roused in the middle of the night by a strange woman with no money or ID, demanding something for nothing. But, as she reached the house, she heard the babble of human voices from within. Despite the late hour, there were obviously people – a lot of people! – up and about. As she looked up, the reason for this became apparent – there was a rough wooden sign hanging from the front of the building, inscribed in a strange, foreign script, which made it clear that what she had taken for a private house was actually some kind of inn.

To Liz’s acute surprise, although the writing on the sign was in a language and alphabet she couldn’t remember ever having seen before, she found that she could read it. It stirred a buried memory deep in her subconscious and, although some of the spelling confused her a little, she found she could make out what it said. Kuama Madak: The House of the Moon.

She determined to go in, although she had no money, as the night had turned very chilly, and she welcomed shelter from the wind and a place where she could rest her feet, even if food and drink would be out of the question.

She pushed open the thick, wooden door of the inn, and found herself in a large, stone-flagged parlour. A fire crackled in a hearth at one end of the room, which was furnished with rustic-looking, long wooden tables and benches, and there was a kind of stone counter at the other end, behind which a man in a crudely woven tunic was pouring liquid the colour of dishwater from an earthenware ewer into pottery bowls. While not exactly heaving, the inn seemed pretty full, considering it must be well into the early hours, and they seemed to be doing a brisk trade in dishwater.

Liz had hoped to sidle in without anyone noticing and find a seat obscured from the innkeeper’s view, so that she could lurk in the warmth for as long as possible without buying a drink, but the eyes of everyone in the inn turned on her, the minute she walked through the door.

She was astonished as foreign words escaped her lips, as if by reflex: “Kuai Gir,” she called out to the room, following it with a polite nod.

There were some nods in return and a few people muttered “Kuai Gir” back, but many of the customers continued to stare at her with undisguised hostility, especially a group of men sitting close to the bar. They were all dressed similarly, each draped in what seemed to be a single piece of ivory-coloured fabric, not dissimilar from a toga or a sari, which had been folded and looped with great skill about his body, to form a garment. Each had long hair, which had been scraped back from his face in a topknot. Most of them were decked out in a large amount of jewellery, their arms and legs encircled by a number of chunky bangles, their necks obscured by beads, chokers and torques. From the redness of their faces and the casual aggression of their stance, it was a fairly reasonable deduction that many of them had probably had one bowl of dishwater too many.

Liz had a hazy feeling at the back of her mind that she’d encountered these characters before, a long time ago (not these specific men – she was confident enough that she’d never met them in her life before – but men like them, men who belonged to whichever organisation their togas and bangles and topknots signified), and she’d not been overly impressed. Although in everyday life she was normally intimidated by big groups of cocky men and usually did everything she could to avoid confrontation, she was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to put them in their place.

But, first of all, she needed a drink. The yeasty smell emanating from the bowls on the counter had wafted over to her and the smell had triggered an even stronger buried memory. Despite its unappetising appearance, the dishwater drink smelled absolutely delicious – not just yeast, but ripe fruits and spices, almost like a liquidised apple pie -and, moreover, Liz had a nagging feeling that she had drunk it before, on numerous occasions, and that she liked it. But it wasn’t really called dishwater, was it? It was called…what was it?…she was struggling for something on the tip of her tongue….

“Kalani!” she found she had involuntarily exclaimed aloud, when the word eventually popped into her head. She took a deep sniff and allowed herself to revel in the intoxicating fumes that filled the air. “Ah, that brings back memories! I haven’t drunk that in ages! Literally.”

But, amazingly, she found that she wasn’t speaking English, at all. She was conversing fluently in a language that, to her knowledge, she had never spoken before, had never even studied. It was the language that the inn sign had been written in, the language that the inn customers, who were now staring at her in stony silence, had been babbling in as she had approached the building.

She looked around at them and smiled. Not the usual, diffident, too-eager-not-to-offend, ghost smile that she used when encountering a group of strangers, but the genuinely euphoric, manically confident, almost deranged smile of someone who finally finds themselves back where they belong after a long journey away. And she gestured to the purple expanse of cloth which could just be glimpsed beneath her travelling cloak.

“But, unhappily, as befits my robes, I have no money. Might I be so bold as to trespass on some kind person’s hospitality and beg a bowl of that fine kalani there? I have come a long way tonight and I could really use a drink.”

The innkeeper looked startled, but he hurriedly wiped out a bowl with a dingy cloth and began to fill it from the ewer, until one of the toga men stepped forward and grasped his wrist in an iron fist, stopping him from finishing the task and slopping kalani all over the counter.

“No!” snarled the toga man, a tall, heavy-built, red-faced man of about forty, his dirty blond hair visibly thinning, despite the scrawny topknot covering his pate. “I’m in charge here!” Shoving the innkeeper roughly to one side, he turned to face Liz.

“Who do you think you are?” he shouted at her. “There’s a curfew in place outside the city, since your lot started spreading fairy stories about monsters in the north. It’s bad enough that you wishy-washy star-gazers have got the lot of us running round like headless chickens, without you thinking you can just come and go as you please, wandering around the countryside cadging free drinks. Purple robe or no purple robe, my lads are going to whip you senseless, then throw you in the cage at Kana Hai for begging, vagrancy and curfew-breaking. That will teach you dried-up hags from getting above yourselves!”

And as if to carry out the threat, he drew a stick with a carved handle from his belt and brandished it in his right hand.

“Getting above ourselves?” asked Liz, an amused smile on her face, unfazed by the threats of beating and prison. “Surely, when Guaiaha issue orders and threats to the Amaraha, their equals under law, it is they, not we, who are getting above themselves? Or have things changed so much since I was last here?”

Toga Man went even redder in the face and his eyes bulged as if they were going to pop out of their sockets as he spat out his reply: “Listen, woman! I don’t know what country backwater you do your conjuring tricks in, but in the city, where civilised people live, everyone knows that the Law of Authority is just a work of romantic fiction from years back, when they were too ignorant to understand how the world works. The Guiaha run things. We’re the useful guys. The Amaraha just sit in their cells and contemplate their navels. Nobody gives a stuff about you purplies, apart from maybe a couple of brain-dead, superstitious bumpkins, somewhere out in the sticks.”

There were angry stirrings around the room at this point, it having been possibly less than diplomatic to start ridiculing countrypeople in a country inn, but Toga Man was in full flow, and apparently didn’t notice. Liz did, though, and was loath to interrupt him, realising that the longer she kept silent, the more rope she was handing him with which to hang himself. She couldn’t resist flashing an impertinent grin in his direction, knowing full well that this would only stoke the burner further.

“I don’t take orders from Amaraha!” he thundered, jabbing emphatically in the air with a stubby forefinger. “I give orders to Amaraha! They have to do what I say! Samaraha might, at a pinch, be my equal, but you ordinary rank and file purplies are like ants compared to me. Do you get it?” And he shoved his bloated face mere millimetres from her so she could see the scattering of broken veins across his nose and cheeks and smell the mixture of sour herbs, kalani and tooth decay on his breath.

“No,” Liz responded, in a leisurely fashion, holding his gaze. “Forgive me, but I don’t quite, to borrow your parlance, ‘get’ it. You say the Samaraha is your equal. I think you are mistaken there, but I shall let that pass for the moment. But surely, by your own…what passes for logic, the Samaraha’s superior is your superior?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” guffawed the Guiaha, seeming to think that what she had said had just proved his point. Some of his cronies joined in with his contemptuous laughter, convinced that they had got the better of her. “And there’s no-one superior to Samaraha, is there? Apart from Saguaiaha, that is, blessings be upon him.” (at this, most of the other Guaiaha in the inn raised their bowls in a toast to the Saguaiaha and let out a riotous cheer, downing the contents in one and thumping the table in noisy tribute to their absent leader) “So nobody, other than Saguai Parma himself, is superior to me!”

Liz raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

And she slowly let her heavy grey cloak slip from her shoulders, revealing the rest of her purple robes.

There was a confused silence for a few seconds, as no-one in the inn could at first understand why she had removed her cloak in such a dramatic fashion. Then, as one by one, they noticed the double band of gold embroidery around the collar, cuffs and sash, awe-struck gasps could be heard all over the room and soft thuds, as person after person, including quite a few of the Guaiaha, dropped to the floor and prostrated themselves, clutching their hair in supplication.

It was the innkeeper, though, who voiced what all the countrypeople in the inn were thinking:

“Mercy!” he cried, tears of joy rolling down his face, not even noticing the pool of kalani and pottery shards at his feet where he had dropped his ewer in shock. “Mercy has been granted to us! It’s the Sasamaraha! Sasamara Karam has come back to save us, just like all the stories said she would!”

Melaszka September 23rd, 2009 3:38 pm

Re: Sasamara
Liz felt very shaken by the inn customers’ somewhat extreme reaction to her divesting herself of her cloak, but she tried not to show it. She was just groping about in her mind for a flippant remark with which to break the ice and bring these people back to normality, when the red-faced Guaiaha with whom she had clashed moments before erupted into an even more incandescent rage.

“Get up!” he bellowed, his face now so livid a purple that Liz feared a stroke was imminent. “You fools! I order you – get up!”

And he began to clutch one of the prostrate Guaiaha by the shoulder and forcibly drag him to his feet.

“You’re a disgrace to your sakham! Grovelling on the floor with these bumpkins over a con artist!”

And he reached out with his foot and viciously kicked another kneeling Guaiaha.

“But Guai Hidi,” stuttered one of the Guaiaha still standing, “She has the double border…”

But Guai Hidi wouldn’t let him finish. “Imbecile! Can’t you see? Those robes don’t prove anything! Anyone could stitch a gold border on a set of plain robes!”

“Her words, though,” pondered a seated Guaiaha. “She doesn’t speak like a person of today. She used ancient language…”

“Playacting!” insisted Guai Hidi, drawing his stick from his belt once again and slapping the man who had just spoken across the face, leaving a violent red weal across it. The man cried out and clutched his face in his hands.

“Stop it!” cried Liz, in horror. “Stop assaulting these boys at once!”

But he ignored her and began to violently beat the Guaiaha still hunched on the floor.

“I told you to stop!” Liz screamed, but to no avail.

She worried that the young man would be seriously injured, as his commanding officer thrashed him around the head, back and legs, in a savage frenzy. Without thinking, she stretched out both hands in direction of the angry warrior and chanted, “Hakaha di!”

Instantly, she felt a surge of electricity running down from her chest to her forearms. It powered through her fingers and flashed in a lightning bolt through the air, hitting Guai Hidi in the middle of the forehead and sending him flying backward through the air. His heavy body slammed into the wall and he slid into a crumpled heap on the floor, knocked unconscious by the impact of his head against the timber upright.

Liz was also thrown backwards a couple of steps by the ricochet of the unexpected blast of power. Blimey! What had she done?

Another of the Guaiaha was crouching by Hidi, checking for signs of serious injury. Liz rushed over to them and placed a hand on Guai Hidi’s head.

“Sorry,” she murmured, sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to hit him that hard, but you know how it is – if you don’t do something for a thousand years or so, you get out of practice.”

She waited until she felt a radiating heat pulsating through her hand and then she held it to the injured man’s head while she withdrew inside her own mind. The noises in the room began to melt away and, replacing them, she heard a tangled babble of voices:

“Good for her! He deserved it, the pompous git.”….”The Sasamaraha. Well, well. I can’t believe it! I always thought she was just a myth.”…”Oh, no, the rumours must be true, then. If she’s here, then it must be here, too”…”Well, you don’t expect this kind of drama every time you nip out for a quick drink”…”It’s funny, but I always thought she’d be better looking than that.”…

With shock, Liz realised that what she could hear were the thoughts of the people around her. This discovery threw her off balance for a moment but she soon regained concentration, and as she focused more and more on drawing her consciousness deep inside herself, she found that the thoughts, like the voices, also melted away, and she was drifting deeper and deeper inside the injured Guaiaha’s head.

Instead, the dreams and unconscious thoughts of Guai Hidi began to swim to the surface. This, however, proved even more distressing than the thoughts of the inn’s customers. Like an unintentional eavesdropper, she found herself privy to the Guaiaha’s most malicious thoughts about her: his hatred of all women in general and all Amaraha in particular and the kneejerk disgust and contempt he felt whenever he saw a purple robe; his initial suspicion that she wasn’t Amaraha at all, merely an itinerant beggar who had stolen and doctored another’s robes as part of a scam; his surprise and fury when she’d turned her magic on him – less the pain, which as an elite warrior he accepted as part of the territory, but the humiliation of having been caught off guard, of having been bested by a mere woman; his continuing obstinate belief that she wasn’t – couldn’t be – who she said she was. Begrudgingly, as a result of the undeniable surge of power that had erupted from her fingertips, he now admitted to himself that she must be Amaraha, or the potential to be, at least, but he was still convinced that the two rows of gold embroidery were recent, fraudulent additions to the standard Amaraha’s robes, not the symbol of supreme authority that she wanted him to think they were. He fully intended to place her under arrest as soon as he regained consciousness and have her publicly hanged for her assault on him. The thought of her scrawny frame swinging from a gibbet gave him so much pleasure….

Unhappy at wallowing in the man’s hatred of her, Liz willed herself to move onto those of his thoughts which did not involve her, but then rapidly wished she hadn’t : even more toe-curlingly, like a guest who accidentally walks into her hosts’ bedroom while looking for the toilet, she inadvertently found herself witness to romantic and erotic scenes which surprised and shocked her.

“Sorry!” she muttered, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to come in here. Wrong door!”

Eventually, she managed to grope to the part of his mind that she had been looking for – his sense of pain and his awareness of what was happening in his body. She felt an acute pain in the back of his head where it had knocked against the pillar, it rent his head in half like a blunt axe-blow to the skull, but she could not feel any blood seeping out from his brain, any cracks in the skull or any serious inflammation. His head was going to really hurt for several hours, but he hadn’t done himself any serious damage.

For a moment, she was tempted to leave him without pain relief, mindful of his rudeness to her – both actual and mental. But that, she thought, would be mean and petty and unworthy of her robes, however much he might deserve it. And besides which, having caught a glimpse of his complicated love life, she actually felt a bit sorry for the obnoxious old bully. She willed a balmy, cool flow of power down her arm, into her hand, into his brain and shaped it with her mind to form a relieving cushion around his wound. Then, taking steady, slow breaths, she concentrated on steering the man into a long, deep, restorative sleep, far deeper than the superficial unconsciousness in which he was currently found himself….

It took a long time. The man’s stubborn mind kept resisting her touch. He obviously had untapped power himself (“As,” she thought, “many men do!” tutting to herself at the preposterous obstinacy of a society which refused to recognise this simple fact). But with remarkable patience, like a long-suffering mother dealing with a fractious child, she gradually locked wills with the man and lulled and rocked his mind to sleep. Not willing to take any chances, she waited a while to make sure his mind really was fast asleep, her breathing slowed to the maximum, mirroring his. When she knew that there was no danger of him waking for a day or so, she gradually withdrew from his mind.

She found the other Guaiaha in the inn clustered round her with drawn, worried faces, anxious for news of their leader’s fate. For all his faults, Guai Hidi was obviously popular with his men.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t killed him,” she said, looking round with a reassuring smile. “He’ll be absolutely fine when he wakes up. He just needs to sleep for a day or two.”

Relief flooded the faces of the warriors, especially the one whom Liz had saved from a beating.

“I thought he was dead,” he murmured. “It would have been my fault…”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Liz said, gently but firmly. “But he isn’t, so that’s all right.”

Suddenly becoming conscious of her thirst, she glanced over at the bar and realised that the innkeeper was still kneeling in a pool of spilt kalani, studded with sharp pottery shards.

“I’m sorry,” she frowned, “But mending that ewer is beyond even me, although I can help you clear up the mess.”

She pointed in the direction of the innkeeper and murmured a chant under her breath. Once more, she wasn’t quite sure where the words came from or how she knew what to do, but it was as if a part of her mind has always known these things, she’d just forgotten or buried the knowledge for a long time, and it came back, almost by reflex, when she needed it.

The spell took effect immediately, and the broken pieces of pot and the spilt liquid rose into the air and flew towards the back of the inn, where a knot-holed, old wooden door creaked open, as if pulled by an invisible hand, allowing the rubbish to be deposited in the midden outside.

“And do, please, get up! All this kneeling is starting to get on my nerves.”

The innkeeper and his dazed customers slowly rose and returned to their seats, albeit somewhat reluctantly, and they remained agog, waiting for what would happen next.

“Right,” said Liz, brightly. “I think we could all do with a drink. I know I certainly could! This calls for kalani all round.” She caught the eye of a tall, skinny young warrior, sporting gold, hoop earrings and a mass of gold bangles on his left arm. He seemed to be Hidi’s second in command. “Perhaps the Guaiaha will be so kind as to pay, in return for the hospitality they have received here?” she suggested tentatively, one eyebrow raised in enquiry.

The warrior hesitated, but then nodded a little reluctantly, and reached for a money bag which hung from his belt. It was true that the Guaiaha who had been drinking all evening while supposedly enforcing the curfew at the House of the Moon had used their status and the unspoken threat of violence to bully the landlord into giving them free drinks. He hadn’t thought of it as wrong, though – they were, after all, here on official business, and it was the contemporary custom to give gifts to the Guaiaha, as a mark of respect.

Things had obviously been different in Sasamaraha’s day, though. From her viewpoint, perhaps it did look a little like abuse of authority. Times were likely to be hard for country innkeepers in the future, now people were less likely to venture out at night, because of the fear of Gagayengi, so they couldn’t afford to be giving out free drinks. And, if truth was told, they had drunk rather a lot…

“As well as paying for the damage caused by Guai Hidi’s outburst?” Liz went on – indicating the mess that she had just cleared up.

Clearing his throat, Guai Ragag emptied most of the contents of his money bag on the bar counter and bowed stiffly to the innkeeper in thanks for his hospitality. The innkeeper bowed in return and bowls of kalani were swiftly distributed throughout the inn.

Liz took a seat at one of the long tables with the countrypeople and was the first to have a bowl set in front of her. But she waited until everyone else in the room had a drink before raising the bowl to her lips, taking the first ritual tiny sip, allowing the spices to tickle her tongue, and then taking a deep draught of the murky liquid.

The long-forgotten taste set off a series of explosions in her brain, bringing to life buried memories, which began to answer some of the questions that had been building up in her head during the events of the last half hour. But not all of them. Not enough of her questions were answered, not by a long way. She couldn’t help admitting that Guai Hidi had unwittingly asked a good question: Who did she think she was? And the simple answer to that question was that she didn’t have a ruddy clue! And where was she? And how had she got here? She was no longer able to confidently dismiss all this as just a very strange dream.

Melaszka November 1st, 2009 12:02 am

Re: Sasamara
Amara Gadan had avoided holding surgery since An Muygali’s death. He’d argued that he had too much work to do, ensuring the evil was banished for now, but the truth was, being in the market square just brought back the terrible memory again and again.

A couple of times, villagers had knocked on the door of his hut, requesting help. A week ago, he would have been delighted and touched to learn that they had enough confidence in his powers to actually seek him out, but now he just wanted them to go away. He lay silently in the dark of the windowless hovel, holding his breath, pretending he wasn’t there, until they eventually gave up and went home.

On the third day after the tragedy, though, a pair of exceptionally persistent children caught him out.

He’d heard their hesitant knocking in the morning, accompanied by shy whispering on the other side of the door, but had lain low and assumed they’d given up and gone away. When he left to hut at around midday, to answer the call of nature, however, he found they were still there, hanging around the doorway, one of them nervously sucking the ends of her hair, the other drawing pictures in the mud with a stick.

“Amaraha!” cried the first one, in a shrill yet fuzzy voice, muffled as it was by a mouthful of hair, “Can you help us?”

Her sister looked up from her artwork and fixed him with those big, brown eyes that all the Northerners seemed to have. The puppyish appeal in them was impossible to ignore.

Gadan sighed. “I’m not sure I’m much good to anyone at the moment, to tell you the truth. Not even myself.” He moved towards the smaller girl to take a look at her picture. Despite her tender years and the crudity of her implement, the draughtsmanship was surprisingly good. The animal in the drawing was quite clearly a gremen, and its face even gave some indication of its feisty character. Gadan nodded at the child in approval. “Not bad.”

He turned to the elder girl. “What kind of help did you want?”

“We’ve lost Kedi.”

“Kedi?” Instantly, he hit on the answer to his own question. “Ah! Your gremen.”

“Amam said that we shouldn’t bother you, that you were too busy, that Kedi would come back of his own accord, but Yaga…” she gestured at her sister “…says he won’t. Yaga says he talked to her and says he needs our help. Yaga wanted to come to you, even though Amam said no”

Gadan frowned. “He talked to her? But he’s a gremen! And, anyway, I thought you said he was lost?”

The girl shook her head in frustration. “No, not with his mouth. He talked to her in her head.”

Gadan froze. Could a child of that age with power be aware of it and use it to that degree? Long-distance mind-transfer with an animal? It seemed almost impossible.

He crouched down beside the little girl.

“Yaga,” he asked, “what did he say to you? What kind of help did Kedi say he needed?”

But she did not respond. She had begun scribbling furiously on the ground again with her stick.

Her sister did her best to bring the Amaraha up to speed. “Yaga said that Kedi is lost inside of the forest. He’s hiding because he’s scared of the thing. He knows that if the thing sees him, it’ll be the end for him. But he’s cold and hungry and scared, and he’s feeling cramped in his hiding place. He can’t stay there much longer. He needs us to go and rescue him.”

“The thing?” asked Gadan. But the question was purely rhetorical. An icy hand had clamped shut around his heart the minute that the girl had mentioned it. He knew very well what she was talking about.

“See!” screamed Yaga, suddenly looking up from her drawing and flinging the stick she had been using to one side. “See! See! See!”

The Amaraha looked down at the lines scored in the mud and gasped with shock and revulsion. He had never in his life seen anything as terrible as the being that the five-year-old had drawn with her stick, and yet he instantly recognised it from the prose descriptions in the Book of Gagayengi.

“Is that what Kedi sees?” he asked, in a voice which was little more than a hushed whisper.

The little girl began nodding furiously.

Melaszka October 25th, 2010 7:19 pm

Re: Sasamara
Someone asked me about this yesterday, so I've added a bit more. I'll try to be a bit better at updating it. If anyone is actively reading it, though, do, please let me know on the feedback page, so I know to make it a priority. (I would also welcome criticism, as long as it is specific and constructive - "The pace drags a little in chapter 3" is great. "It's all so dreadful, why are you writing it?" is not.)


Liz woke up the next morning with a sore head and an incongruous mixture of surprise, disappointment and (oddly) relief that she was still here. By “here” meaning lying on one of the drinking benches in Kuama Madak, wrapped in her travelling cloak. She had “woken up”, but she had still not woken up. If this strange land was a dream, it was a very peculiar dream, indeed, and it still showed no sign of ending.

What did she do now? Some instinct was telling her “Go North.”

What was it that Guai Hidi had mentioned the previous night? That a curfew had been imposed because of rumours of a monster marauding in the north? That was, in itself, a reason for disquiet. But, truth be told, she had already, on some subliminal level, been thinking of the North before he said that. The road she had been walking along the previous night before she had stopped off at the inn headed North, she knew that. She didn’t know how, but she did. And something in her head was telling her it led to Manada Yin, the place she needed to go to. Did such a place even exist?

The innkeeper appeared from behind the bar, bringing her a plate of breakfast – freshly baked herb bread, still steaming from the oven, only lightly leavened, a substantial, doughy consistency, studded with green flecks of aromatic plants which she recognised at once, although their names remained long-forgotten.

“Thank you!” she clenched her hands together in the polite gesture of gratitude. “That smells delicious.”

He blushed and nodded his appreciation.

“I’m afraid I cannot pay you. I did not bring any money with me from where I came from. It wouldn’t have been legal tender here, anyway. And, as you know, as Amaraha, I am not permitted to carry coin, unless that’s changed, as well…”

The innkeeper looked offended. “Do not shame me by suggesting I would ever take coin from the Amaraha! Let alone from the Saviour of Our Nation…”

“Forgive me,” Liz quickly interjected. “I did not mean to insult you. But it seems that things have changed quite a lot since I was last here. And I must admit, it was so long ago, I have forgotten much, in any case.”

“Things have changed,” sighed the barman. “And not for the good, for the most part, either. The Guaiaha do not treat the Amaraha with respect, and this is a matter of great pain to those of us rural folk whose faith is still strong.”

“Hmm,” pondered Liz, chewing a mouthful of bread, thinking that this was as good a time as any to start playing catch-up. “Guai Hidi said last night that Saguaiaha is called Saguai Parma. But that is a Pumari name, is it not? Does this mean that, after a thousand years, we have finally ceased our neverending petty wars with the Pumara?”

The innkeeper grinned. “Sadly not. There are border skirmishes and Pumari raids on Southern villages on practically a weekly basis. Some things, it seems, will never change, despite the fact that, yes, we have a Pumari Saguaiaha. In fact, some say that his election has enflamed tensions with the Southerners even further – they perceive him as a traitor and want revenge on him for his treachery in joining with the enemy.”

“And how did that happen?” asked Liz, intrigued. From this mysterious vast memory storehouse she had never previously realised she had, she had pulled a clear recollection of a long history of tension between the Nadani and the barbarous, nomadic Pumari tribes who inhabited the desert wastelands to the south of the nation of Nadana. Their warrior-bandit culture scorned peaceful means of supporting themselves, such as trade or agriculture. Ambush, armed robbery, kidnappings for ransom were daily hazards faced by Nadana who lived close to the Southern border. Pumara normally considered it brought shame on one of their kind to peacefully converse with a Nadan. She could not imagine how a Pumar could have ended up as the de facto Nadani ruler.

“He was a prisoner of war,” explained the innkeeper. “Captured when he was no more than seven years old. You know that the Pumari take their children into battle as soon as they are old enough to hold a spear? Even at that age, he was a fierce fighter – took four grown men to capture him, they say. Impressed his captors so much with his natural talent for warcraft that they apprenticed him to the Guaiaha.

From there, he just went from strength to strength, winning his first kadaluai when he was just thirteen. He ascended to the Lattice Throne seven years ago. Youngest Saguaiaha for four centuries. Rumoured to have been a unanimous choice. They say he is a good man, for a Guaiaha. Harsh, but fair. And one hell of a warrior.”

Liz grimaced. She hated him already. Not because he was a Pumar – that was kind of cool. But he was obviously the sort of gung-ho, bloodthirsty Neanderthal with an ego the size of a planet that usually did so well in the Guaiaha. Cream floats to the top, as the saying goes, but so does scum. And in her experience (What experience? she wondered. Why can’t I remember any more than bits?) , this was particularly true of the Nadani warrior class. She really hoped that there were people in the Amaraha these days who could take him down a peg or two when need be. The Amaraha needed a strong leader to keep the Guaiaha in check.

“And Samaraha?” she probed, tentatively. “Who is she?”

But the innkeeper didn’t have to answer that question, as at that moment the door of the inn burst open and in flew a grey-haired Amaraha of about sixty years, accompanied by one of the locals who had been drinking with Liz the night before.

Prostrating herself before Liz, the older woman murmured, “Have mercy on me, Sasamara Karam”, but Liz had the feeling that she was motivated by etiquette and good form, rather than the fervent idolatry of those who had knelt to her the night before.

“Please rise,” said Liz, feeling even more self-conscious in the cold, hard light of day about people flinging themselves at their feet than she had the night before.

“I am Amara Darad,” explained the newcomer, rising to her full height of what must have been more than six feet, “the local Amaraha from Kana Hai, three miles from here. My parishioner Mahan ran and told me first thing this morning about your appearance here least night. As soon as I heard, I informed Samara Yirak straight away, by mind transfer. She was, of course, delighted and awestruck by the news, as, indeed, we all are. She has asked me to arrange transport and an escort to take you to Rali Kes, where she and Saguai Parma, blessings be upon him, will greet you in state…”

“It is very kind of you,” said Liz, stiffly, aware that the woman sounded about as far from “delighted and awestruck” as it was possible to be, “but I am afraid that I am needed in the North. You know about the problems in Manada Yin. The people there need my help – they have cried out for me. That is why I have returned. I must go and assist them as quickly as I can – I cannot afford to waste time on social calls to my colleagues in the capital.”

Amara Darad did not look in the least happy about this, but at least she didn’t contradict the mention of Manada Yin. Oh, good. It looked like it DID exist.

“But that is impossible!” erupted the Amaraha. “Samaraha and Saguaiaha insist! You must set out with me, straight away! It is their express order!”

“ ‘Order’?” asked Liz, with a sardonically raised eyebrow. “ ‘Insist’? It is a long time since people ordered or insisted that I did something.”

(“Well, it’s not, really,” she thought to herself. “Julie, only yesterday, for example.” But she felt a calm confidence that her alter ego in this world, Sasamara Karam, did not take orders from anyone.)

Amara Darad bit her lip and apologised. “Forgive me, Sasamaraha, I chose my words ill-advisedly. I meant no offence. Of course, you may do as you see fit. You clearly have the interests of our nation at heart and know better than we do how those may best be served. But will you not at least consult with Samara Yirak, by mind transfer? She waits anxiously for your command.”

Liz nodded slowly. Of course. She ought to speak with the leader of the Amaraha at once by mind transfer. It is what a returning immortal hero, come to save the world, would already have done by now. Mind transfer, yes. Undoubtedly.

Er, how did she do that again? Her mind was distinctly hazy on that point.

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