Journey to the South: Eleven of Thirty

Posted: February 12, 2013 in Fiction
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     Our first night among the people of Kallanha was a festive affair, even if no one involved seemed completely at ease. The villagers, while hospitable and generous, seemed distant and less than fully inviting and open. Perhaps it was because our legionary escort or the size of the party. Perhaps word had spread that a ranking official from one of the wings of the Great Bureaucracy was present and they knew not how to comfortably comport themselves. But, the villagers of Kallanha cannot bear the full blame for any awkwardness of those first few days, as Decurio Atam seemed to be the only one among our own party who seemed fully at ease in this village that fully embraced its Tijhori heritage.

    We were given quarter in one of the hatlac, the sod-covered longhouses I had seen on our first approach and had mistaken for burial mounds. The inside of the longhouse was open and divided into stalls by movable wooden panels, each one covered with scenes for myth and legend, along with the intricate, abstract knot-work typical of Tijhori art. The floor of the longhouse was dirt, but large swaths of it were covered with thickly woven mats of tough grass, and each mat was painted with varying abstract patterns. To be fair to the Tijhori, such a design is actually quite ingenious: once the main construction of a hatlac is finished, the building can be used for any number of purposes. In fact, one of the longhouses that I had assumed was a dwelling was actually a communal barn where I horses, wagons, and carriage were kept.

    That night, three large hearth-fires were built in the hatlac where Cael lived along some of his extended family and other villagers. I was surprised, when I was informed by Atam, that a Tijhori village chief traditionally does not get his own quarters or other such benefits that we Kravri would naturally think that one in a position of leadership would usually reap for themselves.

    “No,” the Decurio told me when I asked him over a cup of Tijhori mead that night. “They might get a paltry tithe of food, gifts, or other such things from the other villagers – especially their performance as chief is a good one – but the position itself is one of responsibility and burden, not benefit.”

    I remember grunting thoughtfully at that. “An interesting arrangement. Why would any man agree to such a position if he gets nothing out of it?”

    Atam had chuckled and patted me on the shoulder, the first time the Decurio had apparently felt comfortable enough with me to do so. “Why, because he feels an obligation to his people. It is a burden, yes, but it is also a high honor should one perform well.”

    Cael had come up behind us at that point, apparently having heard some of our conversation. “Aye,” he said, a cup of mead in his hand. “In the old days, before the tribes bent knee to the Throne, the name of a good chief could spread far and his reputation could garner him the support of others. That was generally how our cathetra came to assume their positions: by election of the chiefs and the good regard of the people.”

    “Cathetra?” I asked.

    “Our…’kings’, if you will,” Cael responded. “It is not a good analogy, for the cathetra had no inherent power beyond what the people invested in him. Just like with a village chief: if the people suffered, if the land suffered, if the cathetra showed himself to be a false-face and corrupt – he would be deposed and someone more deserving of the responsibility put in his place.”

    I remember chuckling slightly. “That sounds somewhat like what I hear from rabble-rousers in the Imperial City who feel that the Moynama has too much power. That he should have to answer to the Imperial Council,” I said. “But, then, the Imperial Council itself is made up of the Clan Fathers and representatives from the provincial governments, not popularly elected leaders from among the people.”

    Cael shrugged at that point. “No system is perfect, Ambassador. Not the cathetrayi, nor the system of the Moy. One thing I know from my short time in this world is that imperfection and change are the only two constants. Perhaps your rabble-rousers will win out some day, perhaps not. But while the cathetra was long thought a role in our society since time beyond memory that would last until the death of the gods, it too passed away.”

   Cael’s words were insightful and while I thought them over, a matronly woman with hair a shade of red like Tulaar setting in the west approached. “Gentlemen,” Cael said with a gesture to the woman. “My wife, Eirehn.”

    The woman – who while obviously of an age with Cael was still, I must admit, quite radiantly beautiful in the light of the longhouse’s hearth-fires – nodded to Decuio Atam and I in turn, smiling politely. “It is an honor for our humble village to host yourselves this evening,” she said, before turning to her husband. “Cael, it is beginning to come down hard out there and the winds are howling like hasinyi.”

    “Hasinyi?” I asked.

    “Spirits of the unquiet dead,” Atam explained. “Particularly murdered women. They are generally believed to haunt forests and their howling is regarded as a precursor to horrible tragedies.”

   Eirehn nodded absently at the Decurio’s words, while her husband rubbed thoughtfully at his bearded chin. “How bad is it, love?”

   “Snow and ice. Coming from Kalor’s maw fast and hard,” she replied. After a pause she added. “I remember it being like this five years ago.”

   Cael’s face soured. “Damn,” he said laconically.

   “What happened five years ago?” Atam asked the chief.

   The bearded man grimaced, emptying his mead-cup before looking the Decurio in the eye. “A blizzard. And a bad one at that.”


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