How shall I describe Valax? Perhaps by saying that it reminded me somewhat of my home in the mountains to the east, though the mountain beneath Valax was not so high nor the air so cold as those peaks. Olive trees grew on its slopes, and sweet-smelling herbs too. After our ordeal in Dumun, it was bliss to be able to rest here. We were honored guests of the king, whose council was eager for any information about their southern enemies.
I remember one evening in particular, when we ate at the king’s table and afterward reclined on couches to tell stories, which was a favorite pastime in Ramzun just as it was in Dumun. Rosédan told the first story, her voice quiet as she recalled her time on the shores of the Irlasa lake. I translated for the king whenever she paused.
“I was confused when I first came there; I didn’t know where I was at all, and I didn’t know the language. More than confused, I was terrified. I could tell that they were a cruel people in that city, but they didn’t hurt me. They only took me to a room, that upper room where we hid. They sang songs to me that I didn’t understand, and they showed me strange pictures. It was women, mainly, which was some comfort to me, but they were not pleasant company in the least. I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything more.”
The king shook his head. “That’s all right,” he said, offering her a cup of wine. “The Father of the Fates will not salt a wound, and neither will I.”
“But there is one incident that I remember clearly, though it wasn’t especially significant in itself. The women who were guarding me took me out for a walk by the shore of that horrible lake. It was early in the morning and the sun was just starting to rise. A bird landed on the ground in front of us, which greatly amused my companions. They laughed and pointed for no particular reason that I could see. It reminded me of a story I heard when I was young, and this is how the story goes.
“There was a young girl who had a pet bird that she cossetted and pampered as if it were an infant. But it happened one day that she was playing with it in her garden that it looked up at her and spoke in human words. ‘Why did you clip my wings?’ it asked her.
“She accepted this without wonderment, since she was a small child. ‘Because I wanted to keep you here,’ she told the bird, in the simple way of children.
“‘But I want to be free,’ the bird said, in the simple way of birds.
“‘I love you,’ said the child, hugging the bird to herself.
“‘I would rather have the love of my mate and my flock. Heaven did not give us our wings to be clipped, but gave us the sky as our inheritance. The earth is yours with all its rivers and mountains; let me have the sky.’ As this didn’t persuade the child, the bird went on to say, ‘Let me go free, and I will tell you your fortune.’
“‘All right,’ said the child. ‘I’ll let you grow your feathers back, and when they do, you must tell me my future before you go.’
“So the child and the bird made an oath before Heaven. Time passed until the bird was at last ready to fly again. The child was sad, but she had given her word. She bade farewell to the bird and asked it for the fortune it had promised.
“‘You will come to a room with two doors,’ the bird said, tilting its head to one side and looking directly at her. ‘Whichever door you choose, you will lose your way for a time.’ But before it could say anything more, the child grabbed it and tried to tie its leg to her finger. The bird cried out and bit her, then flew up to the wall of the garden.
“‘Come back!’ the child cried.
“‘I will not. We must part now, I to the sky and you to the earth. And now you will never learn your future from me.’” Rosédan clapped her hands and sat back on the couch.
“Is there a meaning to the story?” asked the king.
She shook her head. “It is just a story.”
“I’m afraid that there is a meaning to the story I have to tell. It will make some things clear for you, I hope. There were once three sisters, born to the same parents and raised in the same home. When they grew to womanhood, men came from all over the world to their father’s house to seek to marry them. The oldest was named Odhūmk, and she was distant and pale of skin. The middle sister was named Oramzix, and she was buxom and cheerful. The youngest sister was named Olusin’ārk, and she was the most beautiful of them all.
“‘Very well,’ said their father. ‘When you were young I betrothed you all to the prince of the mountain, but I will not hinder you in your choice. You may see your suitors and decide for yourselves.’
“The three sisters went out onto the roof and looked out over their hundred suitors. After a moment’s contemplation, Olusin’ārk sprang up from her seat and went to her father. ‘I will marry the man with the purple crown. Purple is a rare color, and he must be rich indeed. He is handsome as well, so handsome that my heart races when I look at him.’
“So Olusin’ārk went to her chosen husband with joy. He was a wealthy merchant and she had many children with him, but after a time her heart became restless and she found more lovers. Now no one can tell her legitimate children from her bastards, not even she herself. She taught them to sing this song.
I love life; I adore the life of the world.
My leaves grow green; my flowers bear fruit.
Grow from me; O blossom from my body!
The world is mine; I am of this earth.
“As for Odhūmk, she went to her father and told him, ‘I choose the older man with the fringed cloak. He seems to me to be wise.’
“She had always longed after hidden knowledge, and she thought that her chosen husband would be able to teach it to her. He gave her what she wanted, and more. Under his tutelage she became a mistress of potions and poisons, so that no one was surprised when he died suddenly. She had no children, nor any new husband except for perhaps the shades that slipped into her house at night. Everyone in the town knew to keep their own children away from her house, and the shadows swallowed it. But to any child who was unwary enough to approach her, she taught this song.
Old Man Ār built a house; Old Man Ār locked the doors.
Who will break down that old house? Who will tear open those old doors?
Take the left and make it the right; take one hand and make it the other.
Take the outside and make it the inside; take the skin and make it the heart.
Take love and make it hate; take the blessing and make it the curse.
Take the world and make it the house; take the sky and make it the doors!
“Oramzix was the last sister to choose. After much contemplation she asked her father who was the prince of the mountain to whom she was betrothed. Her father took her away from the crowd and to an inner room, where a man sat waiting for her. His face was veiled, but a light shone from his skin. They were married that hour, and he took Oramzix to his palace on the mountain. There she bore many children, to whom she taught this song.
When the people passed through the mountains, ye opened the door.
When the people passed across the river, ye made a path.
Ye set the heavens above the earth; ye framed the depths under the earth.
Ye divided the light; ye cut the brilliance with a knife.
Ye fashioned the sun; ye worked the moon.
We have built a city for you; we have made a home for our children.
They shall dwell in it forever, they shall live in it until the end of the age.
A cloud passed over the king’s face as he finished speaking. He made a motion with his hand, the first sign of hesitation I had seen in him since we met, and went on to say, “There are some of the northern priests who prophesy that Oramzix’s husband will prove cruel and abandon her and her children to beg in the wilderness. There are some of our own priests who prophesy that Oramzix will grow wayward like her sisters, will abandon her husband herself and thereby lose everything she has. But I pray that neither prophecy will prove true, at least not as long as I rule in Ramzun.”
Iddan had been listening to the king’s story with a faint smile on his face. Now he glanced at me and said, “I have a story to tell, if Kësil doesn’t mind my going first.” I didn’t, so with his smile gradually broadening, he began. “There was once a man who wandered from shore to shore seeking his fortune, since he was an orphan and had no home of his own. He happened to spend the night in a village on the coast where the men were all fishers and the women were all gardeners, but when dawn woke him, he discovered that the humble guesthouse where he slept was in truth a rich palace, and the village was a royal city. The men were all great lords and the women all great ladies.
“He was alarmed to learn that the woman he had laughed with the previous evening was in truth the king’s daughter, and was even more alarmed to learn that he was summoned to stand before the king.’”
I myself was somewhat alarmed by the direction this story was taking. I had heard jokes about travelers who dallied with young women as they passed through town, and most of these jokes were not especially suitable for the ears of maidens or really anyone’s ears.
But Iddan went on regardless of my concerns. “‘So,’ said the king. ‘You want to marry my daughter?’
“I suppose I do,’ said the man, because he was certainly not a fool. Anyway, he did love the girl.
“‘Are you of royal blood? No? Then you must accomplish three tasks to prove yourself worthy of my daughter. First, you must pull the sun down from the sky and give it to me. Second, you must slay the Bull of Fate that ravages my kingdom. Third, you must bring me an apple from the garden in the east where the sun rises.’
“‘Easy enough,’ said the man. With a bow for the king and a salute for his daughter, he left the palace. As he walked, he saw a sparrow caught in a fowler’s trap, and feeling compassion for the creature he freed it. After all, he was caught in a remarkable kind of trap too.
“He continued walking, and saw a snake with a wriggling toad in its mouth. Feeling compassion for the creature, he struck the snake and pried the toad free to hop away. After all, he’d be lucky not to be swallowed up himself.
“He continued walking, and saw a beautiful young woman standing by a tree wringing her hands. Her skin was pale and her hair was silver, and though she was not as beautiful as his intended wife, she was beautiful enough that he stopped and asked her what her trouble was.
“‘I’ve lost my pearl in the branches and I can’t get it back down.’
“So the man climbed up into the tree, found the pearl nestled between two twigs, and threw it down to her. But by the time he had climbed back to the ground, she had run away.
“He reached a high point from which he could survey all the land around him, and yet the sun still seemed impossibly far away. He sat and pondered until night fell. Then, as the moon shone brilliantly down on him, he felt the touch of two hands on his shoulders and heard a soft voice in his ear. ‘You did well to retrieve my pearl. Now accept this gift that I give you in thanks.’ Something fell down around him, which he discovered to be a net woven from fine silver threads.
“He slept, and in the morning when the sun was just beginning to rise, he threw the net over it and wrapped it up. When he brought the sun into the palace, the king was amazed by his success, and his daughter smiled to take his breath away. But since people were starting to complain about the darkness, the king told him to throw it back up into the sky. Yet something of its light remained within him, and from that day forward his hair was a golden yellow in its color.
“After this he went to find the Bull of Fate, which was not difficult, as its bellowing could be heard for miles around. When he saw it he was amazed by its size and ferocity. ‘My people are taught from infancy how to leap the backs of the wild bull,’ he remarked. ‘But killing it might be trickier.’
“From the mud nearby he heard a tiny voice. ‘This might help. It came from the bones of the earth and the strength of the earth is in it.’ He knelt and found the toad half-buried in the mud, holding up a stone knife twice its size.
“‘So it might,’ he said, and thanked the toad. He went down to battle the Bull, and it was a remarkable battle that I cannot tell in full or even in brief. But he leaped over the back of that bull and slew it with the stone knife, then carved out one of its horns as a drinking vessel to show the king what he had done. When the life passed from the Bull of Fate and its vision faded, that vision passed into the eyes of the man, and from that day forward he was granted visions of what was to come.
“After this he went south and east to the holy mountain where the sun rises. At the peak of that mountain was a garden where sacred apples grow. It was a difficult climb to the top, but the truly difficult part of his task was to get past the dragons that guarded it. He thought it over, watching the dragons as they watched him.
“Then he heard a high voice in his ear. It was the sparrow that was speaking to him, and it told him to drink water from the horn of the Bull of Fate. So he scooped up water from the stream that flowed down the mountain’s side, and as soon as it went down his throat, he found that he was able to understand the speech of the dragons. They were at that moment commenting on how delicious he looked, so he thought it prudent to interrupt.
“‘Excuse me, sirs and madams,’ he said, ‘but may I have an apple?’
“The dragons made a remarkable sound that he didn’t recognize, seeing as after all he had never heard a dragon laugh before. ‘A polite morsel, aren’t you? But since you are so polite, and you are the first man in a very long time to address us in our own tongue, you may have two apples.’
“The man took one apple to bring back to the king and one apple to eat himself. He ate, and the holiness of the apple passed into him. It is said, therefore, that his line will never disappear from the earth. He returned to the palace of the king, who was astounded by his success and gladly gave him his daughter in marriage. They lived, as the old saying goes, happily ever after.”
“I enjoyed that story very much,” said the king, then looked to me. “But now it is your turn, Kësil.”
During Iddan’s story I had been pondering what I should tell, with little success, but now that the decision was upon me, I made it quickly. “This is the story of how one of the Shimases was lost and then found again.”
“I’m sorry, the Shimases?” asked the king, leaning forward. Apparently my Bird had decided not to translate the name, leaving me only able to speculate as to what sounds the king had heard.
“The Shimases are the gods of my people. Well, not gods exactly. Messengers, perhaps. Ideals, you might say. But I suppose the story will make the most sense if you think of them as gods. There are eighteen of them, and it happened in one age that they were summoned before the vice-regent of the Flame.”
“What is the Flame?”
“I believe it is what I call Heaven and you might call the Father of the Fates,” said Rosédan in a murmur.
“All of them were there, or almost all of them. There was indomitable Ibkilis and pure Laras and Ris with his helmet and spear. There was Aras with the flower of her navel bared and Makiprun with her blazing tongue and Shis with his cauldron. There was Tagsis with his scales and Saras with his harp and Tagzanas with his club. There was Kizuskar at the helm of his ship and Liktus the sorceress and Fasan mounted on her horse. There was Uilas with her bow and Tis on her pillar and Kizusilun with his mirror. There was Unizal and there was Dubas, but frail Aral was not there.” I was not at all sure that I would be able to remember them all, but I did. If I have made any errors, may the Flame forgive me!
I continued. “The vice-regent of the Flame looked over their number and counted them twice to be sure, but each time the total came up to seventeen. ‘Where is Aral?’ he asked.
“Kizusilun peered into his mirror, but he saw nothing. Liktus consulted her invisible companions but they were unable to help her. Even Unizal and Dubas with all their insight into things both seen and unseen could find no trace of Aral and no hint as to where he had gone. ‘Very well,’ said the vice-regent. ‘If Aral will not come to you, you must go out into the world and find him. There is a different section of the world for each of you. Go, and do not return until you find your brother or the Flame bids it.’”
I remembered at this point that this was a very long story and it would take me a great deal of time to go through each of the eighteen adventures. Thinking quickly, I settled on the portion of the world that, if my knowledge of geography does not fail me, includes Magharun. “This is the story of what Shis found. He descended from the heavens to the land of, well, you wouldn’t recognize the name, but he came to a mountain overlooking the sea. It was a long way to the base of the mountain, so he brought out his cauldron, climbed into it, and slid down the slope to the foothills.” The stories about Shis are often on the lighter side. ‘In the first village he passed through, there was a famine, so he gave them food out of his inexhaustible cauldron. In the second village, the sheep were barren, so he laughed and waved his hand so that the flocks increased. In the third village, the people were afflicted by leprosy, so he poured out water from his cauldron on their sores and healed them.
“Shis came to the sea and set out in his cauldron to cross it. Nowhere had he found any sign of Aral, not on the land or the sea or the air. The waves kept him from crossing to the other side, but bore him to a place on the coast to the north, where he set out on foot again. There was a great city here, where he spent some time feasting and drinking and giving generous gifts to his new friends.
“One of his new friends was a young woman who always seemed to be on the melancholy side. He asked her what it was that saddened her, and she told him that she was in love with a young man.
“‘Why on earth would you be sad about that?’ he asked, roaring with laughter.
“She smiled, but said, ‘Because I cannot marry him. I have no dowry.’” Here I had to pause to explain what a dowry was to the king and to Rosédan.
“‘That is no difficulty,’ said Shis. ‘Is there any other problem?’
“‘My father hates him.’
“‘Well, fathers can change their minds. Is there any other problem?’
“‘He is a slave.’
“‘And what of that? If a freeman can become a slave, surely a slave can become a freeman. Come with me and I will take care of all these little problems. First, your dowry.’ Shis reached into his cauldron and took out bags stuffed with gold coins for the woman.
“‘Next, that father of yours.’ He led the woman to her house (for he knew exactly where it was) and greeted her father with a boisterous slap on the back, congratulating him on the marriage of his daughter.
“‘What are you talking about? My daughter is not getting married yet.’
“‘Of course she is!’ Shis said, and gave the groom’s name (for he knew exactly what it was).
“‘Nonsense! Not as long as I have anything to say about it!
“‘Very well,’ said Shis, and stuffed her father in his cauldron. While no doubt he had plenty to say from in there, none of it was audible to those outside.
“‘He was easier to deal with than I thought. Now lead me to your husband.’ Again Shis knew exactly where he was without the woman saying a word. This unfortunate man had sold himself into slavery to pay his debts, and Shis found him toiling under a heavy burden. ‘Straighten your back!’ said Shis, clapping his hands and laughing. ‘You are a slave no longer.’
“‘Tell that to my master,’ said the man. ‘He is cruel, and his whip is cruel, and his brand is cruel.’
“‘I will!’ Shis found the man’s master and struck him with a heavy hand until he yelped and begged for mercy. ‘Set free that slave of yours!’ he said, and the master agreed at last.
“The wedding was a happy one, which is always the case when Shis is present. I’ve heard that even the woman’s father relented once Shis let him out of his cauldron and he saw the festivities. Shis blessed their marriage bed and then went on his way.”
I realized as soon as I reached this point that I couldn’t remember how or even if Shis found Aral in the end, but fortunately this was a good place to stop without giving away my unfortunate failure of memory.
“We have all told stories, and I at least have enjoyed them all,” said the king, leaning forward from his couch. “I am grateful that the Father of Fates brought you to my city. Please take some bread. In Dumun they love to reverse things, and so they mistreat their guests, but we honor and give thanks for our guests.”
“And we’re certainly grateful beyond words for your hospitality,” I said.
“We had a taste of Dumun’s hospitality,” said Rosédan once I had translated the king’s words. She shuddered and leaned against me, so I did my best to comfort her.
“Take some wine,” the king, and refilled our cups himself. “I see that your fate will lead you away from here soon. Wherever you go, remember the time you have spent in Valax. The name of the city is said by the elders to mean peace, and peace is what I hope you take from here.”