The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 7. The Road South
Chapter 6 The Road South
They traveled by darkness, as much as was possible, their way forward lit by moon or stars, or on nights with neither, by the dim glow of a lantern hung from the front of the largest wagon. They did their best to ride through any small villages and towns they passed in utter silence, and in the dead of night. They hid during the day, as well as twenty-eight people, two wagons, four mules and a red stallion could hide. Thirteen men, nine women, five children and their guide crowded together and tried to get along.
In a short time the travelers sorted themselves out. Groups formed: old friends, a few families that had by some miracle remained more or less intact; allies of language and countries thousands of miles away; new friendships forged of need. Enmities sprouted: some as old as the lands they headed toward, and new ones fertilized by close proximity. A few held themselves apart, silent and vigilant. Their guide watched and said nothing.
Loose routines developed. When dawn came and a hiding place was chosen, they would string themselves out in a semicircle around the wagons and the tethered animals. The division of labor, the guide noted, was arranged according to sex. The females did the work while males of all ages rested contentedly. A woman or girl from each small group would gather water; another would scour the countryside for sticks of wood and build a small cooking fire. If a third woman happened to be a member of the same small group, she would do the actual cooking and cleaning up. If there was only one woman in a group, she did everything. And by strange "coincidence" there was at least one woman in every group. To the Grey Man it appeared the females had traded one form of slavery for another. But if the women resented the arrangement, they didn't confide in him. They seemed afraid of him, and only rarely would one of the women even meet his gaze.
The Grey Man had hastily bought supplies for the journey: small axes, a few flints, flasks of oil, several knives, blankets, sewing needles and spools of sturdy thread—Corli's suggestion—and barrels of salted meat and sacks of dried fruits and grains that would not spoil in the summer heat. Sacks of oats were included in the stores for their beasts of burden, for days when grass could not be found. All this was kept lashed under a heavy cloth in the back of the larger wagon. The food was distributed daily; other supplies could be used freely by anyone who had the need.
By the second day, lots were drawn to select men to divide the food equitably. Someone--no one could remember who—suggested that this crucial task should be rotated so no one would gain an unfair advantage. Every week lots were drawn again from the pool of men who had not yet had the duty. Someone else scratched out a schedule in the wood railing of one wagon for guarding the camp and keeping lookout. Each decision was reached only after lengthy, sometimes heated discussions—involving only the men--during which the Grey Man hardly spoke, except to act as interpreter.
Their guide built no fire, gathered his own water and ate and slept alone, though few could recall actually witnessing the man everyone but Nod now called Incanus either eat or sleep. The sight of him roaming through camp or perched on a high place peering into the distance became so familiar that most of the time they forgot he was there.
But sometimes, when his shadow passed at the edge of vision blurred by fitful, daytime sleep, they wondered: who was this bearded white man, and what was he planning? Was he truly Incanus, as some said, a legend from centuries ago? And if so, how could it be, for their guide was surely no older than the eldest among them. The old stories of a pale skinned, bearded wanderer were repeated. Some of the tales described amazing feats, of wind and lightning called from the sky. Other stories told of a generous heart, willing to step in when others were in need. Still other tales spoke of a spy: an overly curious stranger from the evil north who poked into business that was not his own; who searched for an enemy that had nothing to do with them, who stirred up trouble.
Whoever he was, the first words he'd spoken to them—in their own languages, which was remarkable enough—were promises of release from their bonds and return to their homes. But was it the truth? Was he really going to simply let them go, or was this some elaborate northern trickery? The initial wild joy of having their shackles unlocked and their immediate misery relieved had faded.
Now, many weren't sure. At sunset each day, many eyes squinted into the west to frown at the sun, and others pointed to the lengthening shadows.
"We are heading south, aren't we?"
"At least for now."
While it was still light, they could believe. But at night, beneath unfamiliar stars, how could they know the carts hadn't turned in another direction? And night was when they traveled now. Night was their day, and day was for sleep. Everything was turned upside-down. White men were only interested in enslaving darker skinned folk and could not be trusted, but a white-skinned man was now guiding them, and here they were, heading toward home. Nothing made sense. Yet gradually this new life became sensible.
The freed slaves from the estate all spoke at least some words of Westron. On the long road with little else to do, Nod and Morgo's former captives taught as many of the others as were willing the language of their enslavers. It was a compromise, and a despised one, but it helped the time pass. It might be handy to know the most common tongue of these lands they must pass through, and it would help them communicate with each other.
Soon the quiet of the night was broken by the sound of voices reciting new words as examples appeared: man, woman, boy, girl, star, moon, stop, go, wheel, mule, road. Songs were an easy way to learn this clumsy, ugly tongue, and so Nod taught them a dozen children's tunes he'd learned from Corli.
The Grey Man chuckled as he listened to an old doggerel about the Man in the Moon and the prancing cow that leapt over his chariot when he'd gotten drunk at an earthly tavern. He knew the Moon rather well, from the days before there were days, before there was a sky for the Moon to traverse or an earth to shine upon. Of course, the Moon wasn't a man at all, and as far as he knew had never visited a tavern. Why should he? His chariot was made of polished silver, and his shining lantern enclosed a luminous white blossom from the oldest and most beautiful Tree that had ever lived. The Moon never tired of his endless journey across the sky in pursuit of his lover, the Sun, or of their rare and tender trysts when they would share their light only with one another. But there was no point in correcting his traveling companions. They'd never believe him anyway.
Farased, the driver, began showing some of the others how to handle the traces and control the pair of sturdy but strong-willed mules that drew each wagon. Their guide hitched the reins of his roan to the smaller of the two rough wagons while he drove the second team. Once more of the men had learned to drive, the Grey Man trotted alongside on Rubeo. He set out to learn the proper way to say each of their names, and helped those who could overcome their shyness to practice their new vocabulary.
But a few of the travelers expressed no interest whatever in learning a new language or mule driving. Three or four sat apart, as far from the lessons as they were able. The Grey Man noted them and looked away. Only four out of twenty-seven; not bad, he thought.
They were preparing for their fourth evening of travel when Nod and Farased approached as he fixed his saddle to Rubeo's back. Singled out on the first day, Farased seemed to have assigned himself as spokesman, and often brought Nod with him for his daily conversation with the guide. Whether the others saw him in such a role was unclear.
"Incanus!" Farased called. The man's round face was usually creased with a wide grin. Tonight he scowled. "Incanus, I…bring…news…" He frowned in frustration as he struggled to find the Westron words.
"Someone's gone, Grey Man!" said Nod.
Farased continued rapidly in his own tongue, which he'd been teaching the boy. It seemed that a man named Kang had vanished. While everyone else rested, hidden out of sight of the road behind a thick band of thorny bushes, he had slipped away on his own.
"I didn't trust that one," Farased grumbled. "Always complaining, never did a thing to help anyone else. And now he's disappeared."
"Yes," the Grey Man said. "I know."
"It was a few hours ago. I spoke to him before he left."
Farased could hardly reconcile the intense feelings he felt toward their guide. This bearded one had behaved as arrogantly as every other white man he'd ever met; after all, he'd bought them with a sack of gold. But then things got confusing. He would never forget the sight of that whip in his hands, and how they'd all stopped to stare, fearing the worst. They'd watched in amazement as he thrust it back at the slave dealer with a look of pure loathing. And his manner as he had unlocked their bonds, and had commanded that the slaver bring water and clothing for them! It was almost as if he believed that they were men, and not beasts, as the other whites believed. Perhaps this one was different. He certainly spoke to them differently. But was he telling the truth? Farased knew you couldn't trust anyone with such sickly pale skin. He'd always heard that the sun boiled the brains of white men and drove them mad. And what would this one do, now that a slave he'd purchased back in the Arlindon market had escaped?
"Did you try to stop him?"
Incanus finished cinching the saddle. He looked up.
"No. He was free to do as he pleased, as are all of you. I did try to reason that there might be safety in numbers, but he was determined to set out on his own."
He didn't mention that he'd caught him trying to steal Rubeo. Kang had left camp as quickly as his feet could carry him.
Farased was silent as he watched the guide mount and turn the horse toward the road. He placed his hand on Nod's head as the boy stood beside him.
"Strange man, this Incanus," he muttered aloud.
"Surely is! But nice. And brave, too," Nod crowed. The boy had already begun to tell an overly embellished tale of his rescue from the slave hunters to his skeptical new companions. No one believed a word of it.
"Brave?" muttered Farased. "We'll see."
Two nights later a noisy quarrel broke out near the stores of food.
"Hey!" a voice shouted. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Taking my share, that's all."
"That's more than one man's share, and who said you could have it?"
"Get out of my way!"
Three of the biggest and strongest men were filling makeshift bags from the common stores. A crowd gathered to watch. No one seemed willing to be the first to make a move to stop the men. Farased's heart was pounding as he took a step forward. The thieves were twice his size.
"Don't try to stop them! They're nothing but trouble," someone whispered.
A hand restrained Farased's arm. He looked around and met the eyes of the pregnant woman, Suli. He knew she was right. These three wouldn't hesitate to thrash him. But it irked him all the same. His fists clenched.
More people gathered. Each one seemed to assess the relative size of the men taking the food and stood back to watch in silence. Finally, a tall man pushed his way through the crowd and climbed up onto the railing of the wagon. Farased looked up, his face burning. Good for Kutumi, he thought. Maybe if they all jumped up there with him they could stop these thieves.
"Stop," Kutumi yelled in Westron. His native tongue wasn't common to the others, and the new language was his only way to communicate. He'd drawn one of the first lots to divide the food. He knew how quickly their supplies would be depleted just by normal consumption. And now these three were stealing from all of them, women and children alike. "Stop right now!" He grabbed the wrist of the man closest to him. His bag spilled and food scattered.
"Don't touch me, cattle driver! Idiot, learning the words of our enslavers!"
Before Farased could leap up beside him, a fist swung and Kutumi tumbled backward into the dirt. The men quickly refilled the sack and clambered out of the wagon. They shoved their way into the crowd and ran directly into Incanus. Silence fell.
He said nothing, but simply looked at them. As if his piercing eyes were too frightening to behold, they all stared at their feet. Then one looked up and glared.
"You can't stop us. We're leaving! These wagons are too slow."
Incanus frowned. "I won't try to stop you, Ahmed." He glanced around at the watching faces. He spoke first in the most common language of the travelers. Then he repeated the same words in another, and last in Westron. His voice rang out. "You are all free. I have no hold on you. But if you leave, I insist that you take only your share."
He held out his hand, and as the others watched in astonishment, the three men handed him their sacks without hesitation. Incanus reached inside each one. He looked up at the three men staring blankly at him.
"Ahmed, Hutta, Poli, you cannot take so much! Why, this is weeks' worth of food for the three of you."
Ahmed shook his head and blinked as if he woke from a trance. Had they really all just handed their food over without a protest to the unarmed guide? He scratched his head, then he got angry again.
"Well, of course it is!" he shouted. "We've got months of travel before us. What will we do when that runs out?"
Incanus crouched and divided the stores, making small piles of grain, dried fruit and strips of salted meat on the ground. He pulled out two axes, a knife and three flints and laid them aside. He spoke as he worked.
"You'll do what we all must do: find food yourselves, by hunting or foraging. And don't steal, or if you do, don't get caught. It will only mean trouble for the rest of us as we come along behind you."
Hutta, the largest of the three men, leaned down and grabbed his sack. "Listen, white skin. I'm sick of you and sick of the stink of cow dung from this primitive rabble."
He tossed his fist at Kutumi, who stood nearby rubbing his jaw. The woman from the market with the scars on her face stood right behind him. Kutumi jumped forward; three sets of hands restrained him, including hers. He snarled and shrugged them off. He sulked and looked down.
"We've got a better chance on our own without all you slowing us down," Hutta continued. "We're leaving and you can't stop us."
Incanus straightened. He had to look up into Hutta's face. The man was taller than him by half a foot.
"I won't try to stop you, or anyone else who wants to try and get home on their own. But some of the people here aren't as strong as you and your friends. Some are children, or are too weak or were hurt too badly on Morgo's farm. At least one will come to her time of giving birth before she could hope to reach home." He turned and raised his voice. "It is true, what Hutta says. Those of you who are strong and fit might have a better chance on your own. Might, I say, because there are many hundreds of miles to go and a dozen unfriendly countries to pass through, and too many men to count who might want to do you harm--and perhaps a few willing to help, if you can find them."
He had everyone's full attention now. Again he spoke three languages in turn.
"I cannot give any of you a promise of when you'll arrive home, or certainty that you will. But I promise this: I will do what I can to help you get there, and I'll stay with you until you no longer need me. Perhaps I was mistaken in not asking earlier. Well," he said as he looked around, "I'm asking now. Who wishes to go together in the wagons and help each other out along the road, and who wishes to make their way on their own?"
Nod ran out from among the others standing in a wide arc.
"I'll go with you, Grey Man!"
He smiled and took Nod's hand. "That makes the journey worthwhile, Nod."
Farased watched Suli as she stepped forward, her head held high. He could see well enough on her face that she had given her trust to the white man. Perhaps her condition had made everything clear for her. Though sometimes women gave birth alone, in the worst imaginable circumstances, he knew no one would choose to do so. She would stay with the wagons. And suddenly Farased felt certain of where he should be. He stood beside her.
The crowd shuffled and shifted. Within minutes, twenty-four stood on one side, and only two stood on the other. Ahmed, flushed and sheepish, made his way to stand at the back of the larger group.
"You'll have to leave those axes with us. And I can only let you have one flint; we don't have enough as it is. But you can probably use this," Incanus said, as he handed Hutta a knife. A murmur went through the crowd as Hutta held it in his fist. The point was aimed at Incanus' heart. The guide ignored it.
"I wish you safe journey. Take care of one another."
With that he turned his back and knelt on the ground to scoop up the piles of food. Hutta gripped the dagger and stared as several others dropped to their knees beside him.
"Leave it, Incanus. We'll clean this up." It was the woman with the scars, the one he had embraced on the platform. She bowed her head to the task.
Kutumi crouched and gathered the tools. "Incanus, meet my wife, Nelika. Best do what she says; believe me, you don't want to cross her," he chuckled.
Incanus tried to catch her eyes, but she refused to look up. He shifted to one knee. "Pleased to meet you, Nelika. That's quite a brave husband you have there." He glanced at Kutumi, who was puffing up. Other men grunted and slapped him on his shoulders.
Hutta and Poli listened to the laughter and watched the smiles. The next time anyone bothered to look for them, they had disappeared into the night.
A few more days passed. Someone clever—no one could recall who—proposed that they empty one of the food barrels so they could carry water. Although their water now had a slightly salty tang, there was a ready supply in the wagons as they rolled along in the dust. When they crossed a stream the women would fetch every hollow gourd and hastily stitched water bag, halting their progress for as long as it took to pass the vessels from hand to hand in a long line and fill the barrel. Incanus stood beside the women the first time they organized it, Nod at his side. Soon, one or two other men joined in; then gradually, almost everyone helped. It was demeaning to do women's work. But the faster they filled the barrel, the faster they'd be on their way.
Most of the travelers now walked alongside the jolting wagons in the cool of the night. The women collected as much wood as they could find on the way, placing branches and sticks in the wagons. They drew their own lots for who would ride and tie the gathered firewood into bundles for use in camp.
It felt good to walk. They were tired when they stopped now, and could sleep better despite the bright sun and growing heat of summer. Some of their doubts began to dwindle. The mules were slow, but each mile brought them closer to home. At the beginning and end of every plodding night they looked at the sky and felt assured; they had not steered north in the dark hours, or very far to the east or west. The route was mainly south, as quickly as this hard-packed dirt road could take them. But it was a long journey. Very few of them knew just how far they had to go.
Once the routines became familiar some of the tension began to ease. As fear dissipated it was replaced by other emotions. Their guide was gratified to hear laughter and conversation coming from the wagons at night, an occasional song, or the squeals of children playing. While everyone rested, hidden in some sheltered place, he often heard the muffled but distinctive sounds of lovemaking. He thought wistfully of how long he would be on the road; he'd grown very fond of Corli's bed. Perhaps it was time for a visit to her dreams that night. He smiled as he imagined the scent of her hair.
He'd been keeping watch from a shaded rock behind the day's camp when his pleasant thoughts were interrupted by an outburst of angry shouts. They were making altogether too much noise for people who were supposed to be hiding, he thought. These lands were populous, and they were only a bit over week from Arlindon. If they kept this up, someone was sure to come and investigate. He strode toward the source of the disturbance.
A crowd had gathered to watch three people in the midst of a loud argument. In fact, as he noted, it was two people—two men—arguing, and one woman, crying. He sifted his memory for names. The balding, thin man on the left with the brand new swollen lip was Mgeni. The round-faced woman was Kira, and the tall man with the beard was named Rassu. Rassu had his hand on Kira's arm. He pulled her toward him and shouted at Mgeni.
"You dog! How dare you! You should be hanged, vile pig!"
"You're the animal, Rassu," Mgeni snapped. "Don't try to cover up with lies!"
It went on like this for some time. Several others joined in, giving their opinions about which man was more bestial than the other, adding to the general level of noise. Finally Incanus spoke.
"Will you all keep your voices down? We're not that far from the road. Your shouts can be heard for half a mile!"
The two men ignored his words and began angrily pleading their cases to him. He held up his hands.
"Wait! If there is a disagreement, you'll have to work it out yourselves. I am your guide, not your judge. If the three of you can't come to a conclusion, ask the others for help. But keep your voices down!" he growled. "You endanger all of us."
Their faces fell as he turned and walked away. He sat by himself, listening to the rise and fall of male voices. It appeared that another long session of the southerners' council had begun. After almost two hours of it the wizard saw three men approaching: Farased, Rassu and Mgeni.
"May we speak to you, Incanus?" Farased said with a wide smile.
"Of course. What can I do for you?"
"We want the advice of someone objective."
Farased had taken on his role of spokesman again. He explained the situation.
"Kira is Rassu's woman. And he found Mgeni with her today."
Incanus recalled the woman's face: full of fear, crying as she looked from one man to the other. "And what were the circumstances?"
Rassu broke in. He was powerfully built, and his hands were clenched in fists. "He was pawing her, his hands all over her!"
"I was comforting her!" Mgeni shouted. "I found the poor girl sobbing…"
"She only began crying after you put your filthy hands on her, you pig…"
"Please! That's quite enough," Incanus sighed. "Farased, what do you say?"
Farased looked at his feet. He kicked a pile of dirt and scratched his chin.
"The rest of us have listened to both stories. Mgeni says that Rassu has been mistreating the girl, and that he was only trying to help her. But Rassu claims that if he hadn't arrived, his woman would have been dragged off into the bushes and violated. He says that Mgeni has been eyeing her for days. And others have spoken too. Kutumi pointed out that Kira has only been Rassu's woman for a week or so; they met right over there, in that wagon. Kira was from the big farm, and Rassu was from the market. Mgeni has known her longer, for he was from the estate, too. But Mobasu, who is also from the farm, says that as far as he knew, Kira didn't belong to any man, but he recalls that Kira often cries."
Farased looked up expectantly.
"Well?" Incanus said. "Is that all?"
Farased shrugged his shoulders. "That's everything."
Incanus sighed again and shook his head.
"Everything, eh? And exactly what do you wish of me?"
They fidgeted. "We want your advice. We want to know what you would do."
"I would begin by asking Kira for her version of the tale," he said.
They stared, as baffled as if he'd suggested that they ask the stones to speak. Farased frowned. "Kira's version? Why would that matter?"
Incanus rubbed his fingers over his brow. "This is my advice. Ask Kira what the truth is--and Farased, for pity's sake, don't make her speak in front of these two. Take her aside and speak to her by yourself. Better yet, ask Suli to talk to the girl. If Kira can't or won't tell you which story is really true, then next you should ask all the women to meet together and come to a decision."
"What! That's ridiculous!" Rassu said.
Farased smiled and shook his head. "Incanus, you don't understand. You may believe your fire-haired woman can think on her own, but ours don't have the brains to…"
The white man cut him off. "Your only other option, as I see it, is for both of these men to leave the group. It would be too disruptive to let them stay. So I leave it up to you, Rassu and Mgeni. Ask the women for their opinion, or make your own way home." The look on Incanus' face made it clear that he was finished giving advice.
To his disappointment, the council of the southern women was every bit as heated and noisy as that of the men. But in the end a decision was reached. Nelika arrived to deliver the verdict with a bowed head.
"Kira now belongs to Mgeni."
She looked up for the passage of two heartbeats and met Incanus' eye, then she turned and was gone. If he was not mistaken, he detected a note of cold contempt in her voice. Perhaps he was not the only one who questioned the rigid hierarchy within their group. But everyone, including the men, agreed to abide by the decision. Kira moved away from Rassu's fire, and joined Mgeni's. And the male travelers had a whole new topic for conversation: the outrageous beliefs of their guide in regard to women. But, several men muttered, at least the arguing was over.
The women whispered among themselves. If anything, the female travelers seemed even shyer of Incanus than before.
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