Since this story is going down so well, my plan now is to serialize it twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays (starting this Friday).
I might launch into my horror novel, The Snowman, after that. I was browsing through it recently and thinking that, even though I never got around to writing a second draft and tying up loose ends, it isn't so slapdash as I remember it. Anyway, that's for another day.
The blue men were standing in the moonlight, their arms in the air, their thin robes waving in the night wind. Their heads were shaven and they were thin, so thin. There was madness in their eyes.
They were surrounded by a crowd holding daggers and swords, but the blue men didn’t look scared. No, it was the crowd who looked scared, though—for the most part—you could only see their backs. They seemed dirt poor, hunched over by toil and dressed in frayed, muddy clothing. Fear struggled with desperation on their faces.
On the horizon, black against the moonlit sky, was a turreted castle that looked like it held the grim secrets of many centuries. Its very outline seemed cruel, jagged, twisted.
And yet, there was something beautiful about the blue men, about the fevered look on their faces. There was mania in those faces, but there was ecstasy too. As if they had seen into some dreadful and marvellous realm.
Fox could not remember waking up. He seemed to have been gazing at the picture for a long time, awake but not yet conscious. Perhaps he was trying not to think about the last thing he remembered.
The walls around him were made of stone. He was not in a tamzan. He must have been taken somewhere by the purple flash, taken away from the world of the Ezwayna just as he was beginning to love it. He felt weary at the thought, rather than scared.
But then he remembered. There was one house amongst the Ezwayna that was not a tamzan. The Stone House. He never thought he would be inside it.
He was thirsty. He raised himself up from his bed—not a bed of skins and furs, but a proper bed, like they had in the Empire—and saw a table by his side, with a jug of water and a cup upon it. He sat on the edge of the bed and poured himself a drink. It tasted so sweet, he guessed he had not drunk in many, many hours.
He sat there for a while, looking at the picture of the blue men. There were other pictures in the room, as well as the biggest First Father statue he had
ever seen, which looked like it might be centuries old. But it was the blue men who held his attention. He had been dreaming about them, he realised.
Eventually, the door opened, and a man walked into the room.
Fox had never seen him before, but he knew who it was. It was the Eldest.
He didn’t look as old as Fox had expected. Perhaps because the Eldest never moved amongst his people, Fox expected him to be a living skeleton, an ancient being clinging onto the edge of life, hardly remembering his own name. But the man he saw before him seemed no older than Grandy. He was dressed in brown overalls, like a labourer.
“Hello, Fox”, said the Eldest, and his voice was deep and far from frail. “Don’t worry. Grandy is alive, and so is Goodfellow and No-Sooner. Jasma is fine, too, though her friend Secret is paying the price of almost poisoning you children. It’s a wonder none of you died from that potion she slipped you. Not that it was a bad idea, sending you all to sleep. I can only imagine what the panic was like.”
“Thank you”, said Fox, after a few moments of thinking what to reply. The Ezwayna never mentioned the name of God, unless it was in the Great Hall, and they seldom mentioned the Elder. He was the next closest thing to God, and Fox was frightened of saying one wrong word.
The Eldest laughed. He seemed like a man who was used to laughing, but who wouldn’t tolerate any foolishness. “Don’t thank me, Fox. You’re here so that I can thank you. None of us would be free, or even alive, if it wasn’t for you. You and Piper.”
“Piper…what happened to Piper?”, asked Fox. Young people didn’t ask old people questions, according to the customs of the Ezwanya, but somehow that didn’t seem important here. The Eldest was above disrespect.
“I’m afraid that Piper has passed from this world,” said the Elder. He spoke with gentle regret, but he smiled. “He died at Pious Pass, holding back the Red Dogs. The people who attacked us, Fox. They were driven out of the Anarchy and they were looking for some ready-made farmlands.”
“Piper is dead”, said Fox, as if to himself. He didn’t feel sad. He didn’t even feel surprised. He just felt strange to think that the last friendly voice Piper had heard had probably been his own.
“Dead and buried”, said the Elder, almost cheerfully. “And a hero, to boot. Now I’m glad I didn’t listen to them when they told me we had to kick him out. I was half of that mind myself, you know. He had a dangerous look about him. And he was dangerous in the end. He killed almost a dozen Red Dogs, and delayed the rest long enough for our people to get back to the village in time.”
“Did anybody die?”
“A few”, said the Eldest, and a cloud passed over his face. “But not nearly as many as might have been expected. They’d timed it to catch us on the Day of Casting Off. They must have been watching us for a good while.”
There was silence for a few moments. Fox found himself looking at the picture again, and The Eldest followed his gaze.
“It’s a strange picture, isn’t it?”, said the Elder, as if he had forgotten all about Red Dogs and death. “It has to do with some legend or other. I bought it off a peddler when I was a boy.
“At first I liked it because of the colours”, he said, when Fox made no response. “That’s as good a reason as any, of course. But after a while—I mean twenty years or so—I liked it because it was a window onto another world, a world I could only guess about. When I look at it, it seems so strange and mysterious. And then I realise that I’m strange and mysterious, too, that nothing that has ever existed has ever been ordinary, or usual. Every world I’ve seen has been marvellous in its own way.”
“What do you mean, every world I’ve seen?”, asked Fox. He was thinking of the purple stone.
The Eldest laughed again, and shook his head. “I don’t mean hopping magically from place to place like you, Fox. I never had such a trick. But I’ve seen many worlds, too. Because every country is a world of its own, and every village, and every home. Every age, too. Even a man who never leaves his own farmstead makes a journey, a journey through time. The world changes around us, too.”
“You never left your village?” asked Fox.
“Oh, I did, I did. Nobody amongst the Ezwayna has seen as many countries and peoples as I have. Forty years I roamed around the world, before I returned to my own people. Before I realised that the drama of a hundred families is more than enough to last a man his whole lifetime.”
Fox didn’t know what to say. He didn’t understand everything the Eldest was saying. But then again, he got the impression that the Eldest knew that full well. That he was speaking, not to the Fox of today, but to the Fox that would remember this conversation years from now.
“But enough of such talk”, said the Eldest, gently sweeping the air with one hand. “Fox, the Ezwayna is in your debt, and great deeds deserve great rewards. Name your own reward, and if it’s within my power to give you, and if it’s not utterly foolish, it shall be yours.”
Fox opened his mouth to speak, but the Eldest added: “Think carefully, Fox. I doubt anyone is going to make such an offer to you again.”
“I know what I want”, said Fox.
The Eldest frowned a little, as if in disappointment. “I can’t send you back to your old world, Fox. Surely you know that?”
“That’s not what I want”, said Fox.
“I want you to ask the storyteller to teach me all her stories”, said Fox. “I want to become her apprentice.”
The Eldest only looked surprised for a moment. Then he smiled.
“I should have guessed”, he said. “Armala told me about you bursting into her tamzan. She was rather impressed. And it takes a lot to impress Armala.”
“Armala”, said Fox, trying out the name on his tongue.
“Armala” repeated the Eldest, and his tone was wistful. “She’s a stubborn woman, Fox, and I’m not sure if she’ll say yes. I spent most of my life trying to change her mind, and I failed. I asked that woman to marry me twenty-two times, and she said ‘no’ every time but once. And the single time she said ‘yes’, she switched back to ‘no’ the next day.”
Fox didn’t feel embarrassed at this personal confession. The Eldest made it without the slightest display of self-pity or regret. He might have been talking about somebody else entirely.
“It’s what I want more than anything in the world”, said Fox.
“Maybe it is”, said the Eldest. “And maybe it isn’t. It’s funny how people are so sure that they know what they really want. That’s the hardest thing to know of all”.
Fox didn’t understand what the Eldest meant, so he said nothing.
The Eldest sighed. “But all I’m doing is trying to avoid asking Armala. I never thought I would have to plead with that woman again. Oh well. It might even be a pleasure, I’m so used to people obeying me. I’ll do my best, Fox.”
He left the room, and Fox was left looking at the blue men, and praying that Armala would say yes, until the residue of Secret’s potion put him to sleep again.
No-Sooner was sick. Very sick. Fox could never remember a time when No-Sooner’s face had been not lined and pale, but before now he had seemed like an old tree that sprang into life again every spring,. Now every word, every move seemed to cause him pain.
The atmosphere was sombre in the Spiral House. But it was excited, too, like a house where a baby is about to be born. Fox had never seen it so full.
Jasma was standing in the corner with Secret. They had given up frowning and tut-tutting, since nobody was paying them any heed. Fox had heard only rumours about Secret’s punishment. Could she really have been forced to eat worms, as some of the children claimed? Whatever it was, she didn’t seem in the least abashed. In fact, she seemed bossier than ever.
She had chastised every single person who entered the Spiral House, telling them that they were helping to kill an old man. Most of them, especially the younger ones, went pale when she turned on them, but they came in anyway. She had even tried blocking the door, with Jasma’s help. She only gave that up reluctantly when Goodfellow ordered her to stop.
“That’s the problem with all doctors”, he’d said, interrupting the game to shoo her from the doorway. “And all medicine men and medicine women whatsoever. They end up thinking that health is the most important thing of all.”
“I’m not talking about his health”, snapped Secret. “I’m talking about his life.”
“Life is like butter”, said Goodfellow. “Not worth a damn on its own account.”
People around him laughed uneasily, and Secret said: “Oh, very funny. I hope you’re still laughing when you’ve helped a man kill himself. For a game.”
Fox could feel the entire Spiral House grow angry at these words.
“Have you any idea what’s happening today?”, asked Goodfellow, almost whispering. “No-Sooner is the first player, in the whole history of Spiral, to have a chance of reaching the Sapphire Thousand.”
The Sapphire Thousand was the name for a particular high score. That was as much as Fox could understand. Spiral baffled him.
“Whatever it is, it won’t be much use to him when he’s dead”, snapped Secret.
“That’s where you’re wrong. If anything matters when you’re dead, this is exactly the kind of thing that does.”
Fox was standing beside them as they were bickering. He looked over at No-Sooner. He seemed lost in the Spiral Board, but Fox wondered if he could hear them. He looked like a man about to fall asleep, but he always looked like that these days, though he tried to smile.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this”, said Secret. She seemed to have gone beyond outrage. Her eyes returned to No-Sooner again and again.
“Listen, Secret”, said Goodfellow. He put his hand on the healer’s shoulder, which made Secret stiffen. “If No-Sooner goes to bed, and stays warm, and eats broth full of your herbs, how much longer will he live?”
“I’m not a clairvoyant”, said Secret, looking away. “He has a better chance, anyway.”
“A better chance. But no guarantee. He could die tomorrow, couldn’t he?”, asked Goodfellow.
Secret did not reply, and Jasma snorted.
“And then he’d never reach the Sapphire Thousand”, said Goodfellow.
“By the red moon!”, cried Secret. “Is there any end to the stupidities of men?”. (If she had noticed that there were any number of girls and young women in the Spiral House, she had chosen to ignore that fact.)
Goodfellow just scowled at this, and shrugged his shoulders in resignation. But now Jasma was talking.
“Can’t you just give him this sapphire thingy?”, she asked. “Can’t you just let him win, Goodfellow? If it’s so important…”
Her voice trailed off. Jasma was not easy to shame but everybody within hearing distance was looking at her with pure disgust in their eyes.
“I’d rather stick a knife in his heart and have done with it”, said Goodfellow.
“That is what you’re doing”, said Secret, and tears shone in her eyes. Now it was the turn of the onlookers to look abashed.
“Besides”, said Goodfellow, more softly now, “Spiral doesn’t work like that. It’s not like marbles. I couldn’t just let him win even if I wanted to.”
Secret only sniffed, and Jasma said: “As long as you can live with the guilt. The lot of you.”
“I’m going back to the game,” said Goodfellow. “Stay away from that door, the pair of you, or you really will be eating worms.” He didn’t see the fury in their eyes at this last joke, as he was already moving back to the board, the crowd parting for him like worshippers around a priest.
After that, the two women contented themselves with scowling in the corner. But nobody noticed them. Every pair of eyes was fixed on the brown board, where Goodfellow’s five “monks” and three “dogs” were on the defensive against No-Sooner’s seven “dragons”.
Fox tried to pay attention, but he could barely understand the game in its simplest moments. And right now it was far from simple. He could hear the young Ezwayna around him whispering, explaining to each other exactly what was happening on the board. When anybody’s eyes strayed from the pieces, it was to No-Sooner that they moved. He looked like a man about to collapse, as if the game was the only thing keeping him up.
He began to feel dizzy after a while, trying to understand the unfolding of the game. The tamzan was full of smoke. Grandy’s fans had taken to smoking pipes, in emulation of their hero. There was a ring of such fans around him, though they were too nervous to get very close. Fox suspected that he enjoyed their admiration, but he always claimed to be irritated by it.
His attention wandered. He saw a ginger-coloured cat prowling through the legs of the spectators, rubbing against them, attempting to leap onto the laps of those lucky enough to have a seat. They all ignored him, apart from those who brushed him away, mostly without breaking their attention from the board. All the time, whispers were filling the air.
“What is he doing, putting his blue dragon there? Is he going funny, too?”
“Shut up, Goldbuckle! None of us can have any idea what either of them are thinking! Just look, and try to learn.”
“But even still…”
A girl with big eyes and a green, flower-embroidered smock was playing absent-mindedly with a long branch while she watched the game. She was sitting down, and rhythmically swaying the branch from side to side, brushing the floor. The ginger car had fixed his attention upon it, pouncing at it from time to time but never able to still it. The girl herself was entirely oblivious, lost in the battle of monks and dragons.
“I think he’s very close…I think he’s going to make it…”
“I can hardly bear to watch…”
The atmosphere—the smoke, the heat, the tension—was suffocating, though nobody else seemed to notice. Fox decided he’d had enough. He began to make towards the door, sliding through the gaps in the crowd, squeezing past the huddle of bodies. Nobody even looked at him, or noticed his departure. Jasma and Secret might have seen him, since they were the only ones not enthralled by the game. But they were too busy talking to each other, only looking up occasionally to glare at everybody else.
He was glad to be ignored. Ever since the day of the attack, he had been pestered with questions about Piper, and about his run to the Great Hall. Most of the children his age—and those older especially—seemed to be jealous of him, while the younger ones idolised him. He regretted telling that pest of a boy that his magic only worked when he was in danger; now there were rumours that he had been transported from one place to another, just in time to alert the Ezwayna, his powers coming alive when his life was in danger.
The air outside was crisp, and chilly, and delicious. He drank down mouthful after mouthful, and walked away his cramps. He tried not to think about the storyteller, and the Eldest. It had been a week and no word had come. Sometimes he worried that he had simply been forgotten, but in his heart he knew it wasn’t so. No, it was a good sign that there had been no word; it showed that Armala hadn’t killed the idea straight away.
Unless the Eldest was still working up the courage to ask her…
He had wandered to the edge of a small lake, the Lake of Good Cheer. He’d been so lost in his musings that he had hardly noticed his surroundings, and now he saw with a start that Truevow was standing a few feet away. The
very next moment, the young man saw him, and hurried towards him. Fox only had time to wish he’d never left the tamzan before he caught up with him.
“Fox! How are you, my dear fellow? How is the saviour of my people?”
For a moment Fox thought Truevow was making fun of him. But another look at the young man’s smiling face told him otherwise. Truevow lived in a world of great deeds and beautiful maidens, and suddenly Fox had become a figure from that world.
“I’m fine”, said Fox. “How are you?”
Truevow sighed. He was dressed all in black, as he had been for the past month or so. When he wasn’t working--- he was a carpenter—he seemed to spend his entire time brooding and rambling in the woods. And yet, they said, he had fought bravely in the encounter with the Red Dogs.
“All I can think about is Jasma, Fox”, he said. “I can’t help feeling that we’re destined to be man and wife, and yet she has nothing for me but mockery.”
“Oh,” said Fox. As incredible as it seemed to Fox, Jasma had become the favourite of the young Ezwayna men. They never seemed to stop pestering her, though she ridiculed them endlessly. It must have been her hair, Fox decided. They had never seen anything but black hair before, and what else could they possibly see in Jasma?
“I’ve composed a poem about her”, said Truevow, rather shyly.
“I’m going to back into the Spiral House…I want to see what’s happening with the game…”
“Would you like to hear it?”
“I don’t really know anything about poetry”, said Fox, bracing himself.
“What do you need to know?”, asked Truevow. “Poetry is the language of the heart. You have a heart, don’t you Fox?”. Not waiting for Fox’s answer, he began reciting, in a high-pitched voice:
“I am no sailor who has sailed the seas;
I am no hero, born to do and dare.
I am no soldier, full with memories
Of hope won from despair.
I am a poor boy, happy just to seize
A little joy amidst a life of care;
A simple man who speaks of what he sees
And only sees you fair.
I have seen silk-gowned beauties bred to please
The rich man’s jaded, heavy-lidded stare;
I hardly paused to look on such as these;
I only find you fair.”
“That’s wonderful”, said Fox, when Truevow was taking breath before another plunge.
“There’s another five stanzas”, said Truevow. “You think it’s good?”
“Yes”, said Fox, determined not to hear another line.
“Did you understand the play on words? That fair means both fair-haired and beautiful?”
“Yes”, lied Fox. “I know.”
“Do you think Jasma will like it?”, asked Truevow, caressing his chin and staring down at Fox, hungry for his answer.
Fox paused. He wanted to say yes, but it didn’t seem fair. Jasma would probably laugh herself to death.
“Maybe poetry isn’t a good idea”, he said. He thought about the years he had spent listening to Jasma’s stories and complaints, while she battered dough with a wooden spoon or viciously scrubbed a floor. Poetry had never been mentioned.
“Well, what would be a good idea?”, asked Truevow, desperately. “What impresses her?”
Fox bit back a surge of anger. Truevow was his elder. But what on earth was a twelve-year-old boy meant to know about these things?
“Well, money, for a start”, said Fox. “But you don’t have any money here.”
“We gave up money in the Anarchy”, said Truevow, regretfully.
Fox thought again. “She’s impressed by important people”, he said. “She saw the mayor of our city in the street one day and wouldn’t shut up about it.
And the only one of her uncles she liked was a captain in the army. If you could become something like that…”
“How can I become a captain when we have no army?”, moaned Truevow, kicking the grass. “How can I become mayor when we have no city?”
“Well, that’s the best I can do”, said Fox, turning away. The heat of the Spiral House was better than this.
“Wait!”, cried Truevow, grabbing his arm. “I know! The March of Youth need a new Uncle, now that Samaran has turned twenty-five. Would that impress her?”, he asked.
“Maybe”, said Fox. “What does he do, this Uncle?”
“Well, he looks after discipline amongst the young people”, said Truevow. “He can impose punishments for minor misdeeds, like fighting. He can be a judge on little matters, like races and marbles. And he reports to the Elders now and again”.
“I think that will do it”, said Fox. “Maybe. I don't know.” He started to move away again.
“Thank you”, said Truevow, following him. “And Fox..”
“You are now my heart-cousin”, said the young man, beaming. “Your ally in every deed, and your companion through every pain.”
“Thanks!”, said Fox, and he began to run towards the tamzan. “I want to get back to the game before it ends”, he shouted over his shoulder.
As he ran, he wondered what exactly being a heart-cousin meant. He’d heard the term before, so it wasn’t just Truevow being poetic. He didn’t like the sound of it much. The Ezwayna took bonds very seriously, and they usually came with plenty of duties.
Inside the Spiral House, the air was even thicker with whispers and agitation. A boy who only knew Fox by sight leaned towards him and said: “He’s almost there. He’s almost at the Sapphire Thousand”. The last words were almost a gasp of excitement.
Fox felt his heart beating faster at his words. The passion in the Spiral House had become contagious. The Sapphire Thousand! He hardly
understood what it was, but that didn’t matter. He started jostling for position, trying to catch a sight of No-Sooner.
When he saw him, his stomach lurched. No-Sooner was holding himself up on the table, almost hunched over the pieces. He looked more excited than anybody, but it was the excitement of fever. Underneath the table, the ginger cat was rubbing against No-Sooner’s legs, not in the least bit interested in the mania around him.
“Has he got it?”, Fox asked the girl standing beside him. She looked as if she knew what was happening.
“Almost”, she said, and she took his hand. It seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. “Just a few more points. He’s going to make it.”
Fox looked around. People were hopping up and down with nerves, and many were gripping each other. Even Secret and Jasma had forgotten to glower.
And then, all of a sudden, a cry went up. Horror shot through Fox. For a moment he forgot about No-Sooner, about Spiral, about himself. It was a kind of animal horror, the terror of the beast about to be slaughtered. There was such anguish in that many-voiced howl. Then he heard words, and sentences:
“He’s dead. He’s dead.”
“He just fell over…”
“Did he get it? Did he get it?”
“No…he just missed it.”
But mostly there was weeping, and cries of grief. Now people were hugging each other for consolation, burying their face in their hands. Secret and Jasma were weeping in each others’ arms. It went on, and on, and on.
Then Grandy was standing on a chair, and talking to the crowd. Fox had never seen him in tears before, but now his eyes were glistening.
“Friends!”, he shouted hoarsely. “Friends! Friends!!”
Slowly the Spiral House grew more quiet, though the sobbing only seemed to grow. Everybody was watching Grandy.
“This is a moment of sadness, but not a moment of failure. Our dear No-Sooner perished doing the thing he loved most of all, and his last moment was the peak of his entire life. There is no cause for sorrow in that. Cheers for No-Sooner, the greatest Spiral player of all time!”
Fox had to guess at the last words, because the Games House was already resounding with deafening cheers. They went on for two minutes, three minutes. He was cheering himself, he realised. And weeping.
Somebody was pulling at his clothes. He turned around. A girl was standing there, one he had never seen before. She was skinny as a sapling, and she had a dirty face.
She began to push through the crowd towards the door, gesturing to him to follow.
He followed her, wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand. Hands touched him as he passed, patting his shoulder, stroking his hair. The Games House had become a storm of love and mourning.
He went out into the chill air, his ears still ringing from the uproar inside. He looked around for the girl. She was leaning against a tree, staring at him with a blank expression.
“What is it?”, he asked, walking up to her.
“I’ve been sent from the storyteller”, said the girl, matter-of-factly. “You’re to come to her tamzan three mornings from now, and your apprenticeship will begin.”
And with that, she turned around and walked away, while the cheers still billowed from the Spiral House.
Armala’s attitude seemed to have changed, when Fox’s lessons began. The whole thing might have been her own idea. Sometimes Fox almost suspected that it was; that she had somehow planted the notion in his head, while he was listening to her story of Tamar the Innocent.
He expected some kind of rite of passage, some cruel ordeal to test him. There was nothing of the kind. There were no tricks, no tests, none of the nasty surprised that so often came along with a granted wish in stories. At least, none that Fox could see.
On his first day, the storyteller gave him a cup of chora and asked him to tell her all about his life. About the Empire; about his parents, who had died in a plague when he was only two years old; about Grandy and Spiral and the purple stone. She seemed no more interested in the purple stone than in the number of Jasma’s brothers, or whether Fox took tea sweetened or unsweetened.
The little girl who had come to him in the Spiral House was called Sleep. She was an orphan, too, which gave her a special position amongst the Ezwayna. Orphans were called the children of all. But she chose to spend most of her time around the storyteller, or wandering amongst the lakes and forests.
The story of Fox’s life took three days to tell. Telling it wasn’t like enduring one of Grandy’s interrogations. Every day, he was startled when Armala announced it was time for him to go. He never knew his own story was so interesting, right down to the songs he made up as a child, until he was telling it himself.
On the fourth day, Armala retold him his life story, and it seemed a hundred times more enthralling. He almost shook when she told him about the race to the Great Hall, as if he was afraid that he would be too slow this time.
“Why don’t I tell my stories outdoors, Fox?”, she asked when she had reached the end. She sat cross-legged on the floor, always, sipping her own chora and staring directly into his face.
Fox mulled for a moment, eager to answer correctly. This was the first time she had asked a question that required more than a simple answer. But after a few moments of his silence, she answered it herself.
“It’s a simple matter, really. Aside from the fact that it’s warmer and more comfortable, there’s this thing over here”. She pointed to the fire, which was perpetually blazing in the middle of the tamzan. Fox often marvelled that the Ezwayna’s homes never seemed to burn down. They were masters in the handling of flames, Grandy had said.
“You mean…that people look into the fire, and see the shapes of the stories you’re telling?”
The story-teller paused for a moment, looking into the fire herself, which mercilessly shadowed her lined face.
“That’s true as far as it goes”, she said, eventually. “But that wasn’t what I meant. No, I was thinking of the fire’s own artistry. How it paints with light and shade, lighting up one spot, throwing another into darkness. The wisdom of fire is in what it hides, and what it makes brighter than sunlight ever could. Is the firelight a liar, Fox?”
“No”, said Fox, without even having to think.
“That is correct”, said the old lady, and she took another sip of chora. Fox did the same. “And when I told you back your life, you didn’t quarrel with the seven Virtues in the games room, or hearing your mother’s voice when you fell down that hole, or the wave of dread that you felt when you picked up the playing card by the Skipwater.”
Fox started. She had said all those things, and he had not even noticed.
She laughed now, not triumphantly, but joyfully, and Fox found himself laughing too, pleased to have been tricked.
“You didn’t stop me”, she said, “because the shallow part of your mind had been lulled to sleep, and the deeper part had awoken. And that is all the art of the storyteller, Fox.”
“All of the art?”, the boy asked, happy to have been handed this gem of wisdom, disappointed that there was so little mystery to the woman’s trade.
“No, not all the art”, she said. “But it sounds better when you say it like that, and how things sound is important. There is more, much more…years more….far more than I understand myself.”
“Armala..” began Fox.
“Now you are going to ask me why I resisted you at first”, said the storyteller, her smile fading, “and why I teach you so willingly now.”
“Yes”, whispered Fox, unsettled once again at how easily the old woman could read his mind.
“Why is the least useful word of all”, said Armala, putting her empty chora cup on the floor, but never taking her eyes from Fox. “Every attempt to answer it just makes new questions, all beginning with the same word. Who can explain these things, Fox? Why do we laugh at a joke, or feel like dancing when we hear music?”
Fox did not reply, since he only barely understood what the old woman was talking about.
She sighed. “But the only real mistake is to think that there is always a simple answer to such questions. Life would crumble to dust if we all stopped trying to understand each other. Just as it would turn to stone if we ever believed that we already did.”
Fox looked blankly at the storyteller. Would his lessons be like this from now on? All riddles?
Armala laughed again. “No, don’t even listen to me when I talk like that, boy. I’m talking to myself, not you. But I have a simple enough answer for your question, if you want to hear it.”
“I do”, said Fox, without a pause.
“I saw how restless you were”, said the old woman, with a shadow of sadness upon her face, “and I thought it was my duty to shake you out of it. I thought some sharp words might make you happy to settle down. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe you were meant to come to me, after all. Maybe I was meant to be your teacher.”
She looked at him for a few moments in silence, while the fire crackled, and the shadows danced behind her. Then she said:
“But I see that it’s going to be a long path, Fox—a dreadfully long path—and one with much pain along the way, for you and for many others. I was not eager to set your feet upon that path, and I fought against it.
“But even as I fought against it, I saw that light in your eyes, harder than diamonds, and I knew that nothing was going to stop you. I knew it without admitting it to myself, and I only gave in after the Eldest had been pestering me for days.”
“Is it…is it that bad?”, asked Fox.
“Possibly”, said the storyteller, with a sad smile. “Bad and good are like why, Fox. There is no final judgement, at least none that mortal men can know. Hundreds of years can go by while people argue over whether a man’s deeds were good or bad.”
“But am I going to hurt Grandy?”, Fox persisted, suddenly troubled at the thought. “Or Jasma?”
“Bind me, I don’t know!”, said the old woman, throwing her hands in the air. “There is no such thing as the future, Fox. Not really. It’s not a country waiting to be discovered, or the final pages of a book, there for you to peek at if you skip ahead. It doesn’t exist yet. And besides, it’s too late now, and maybe it was always too late. You can’t put the fruit back on the tree.”
“I just want to learn to be a storyteller”, said Fox. “To sit in this tamzan like you, and tell people about Tamar the Innocent, and magic islands, and faraway countries.”
“Fox”, said Armala, shaking her head, and smiling to herself. “All the power in the world could not keep you in this tamzan. I don’t know where your path leads you, but it leads you far away from here. Far, far away.”
All his life Fox would remember the dreaming tone in which she said far, far away. It made him think of a door open only a half an inch, but with a chink of light, scary and seductive at once, gleaming through it. But for the moment he said nothing.
“Enough of this chatter”, said Armala, with a little frown. “That other thing I told you when you first came to me was true enough. Before you can become a teller, you must become a listener. You must become starving for tales, as hungry for other peoples’ memories as a flower is hungry for the sun. True memories, false memories, made-up memories, it makes no difference.
“Make yourself useful around the village, Fox, and keep your ears unblocked. That’s the best thing you can do, for now. When you know the Ezwayna as well as you know your alphabet, then you can start learning about magic islands. And now it’s time to go.”
But Fox did not go. He stayed sitting on the tamzan floor, frustrated at Armala for not believing him.
“I never want to leave the Ezwayna”, he said. “I know that Grandy…can’t live forever. But I’m happy here. I want….I want peace, and I want things to stay the same, and friends. Not like the boys in the street mocking me, back in the Empire. I feel safe here”.
Armala gave him a little smile, but it made her look older than ever. It was so sad, and weary, and it pulled her wrinkles tight across her face.
“Oh my boy”, she said. She had never called him that before, but he would soon get used to hearing her say it. “When you’ve learn to understand stories—and to understand people, which is pretty much the same thing—you’ll know that there’s nowhere safe, on this world or any other.
“Fox, I know how the Ezwayna must seem to you. You came from an Empire that was faling apart, and it’s natural for you to think—if only because you want it so much—that this country is a firm place for your feet. Or a stream that will run placidly for year after year, that will flow until long, long after you’ve passed over.”
He swallowed. He looked deep into Armala’s eyes, trying to convince himself that she was just an old woman with a gift for telling tales, that she was no wiser than anybody else.
“But that’s not how it’s going to be. Our peace will be ripped apart before too many years. The signs are already there to be seen, for the keen eye. The ground is already beginning to stir, deep deep down”
“Are the Red Dogs going to come back?”, asked Fox, thinking of the twelve graves in the centre of the village, where those who had died defending the village were lying. “Or somebody even worse?”
“Not all attacks come from outside, Fox.”
“Enough”, said the storyteller, softly but firmly. “All you need to know is that nothing in this world is as solid as it seems. Go now, and the next time you come here, tell me what the fishermen and the washerwomen and the seamstresses talk about. And don’t fret, Fox. Life can’t be lived with one eye always on the future.”
Outside, the day was warm. Spring was rushing in with gusto, and every tree and bush and shrub seemed to be vying to be thickest with new growth. Three boys were trying to catch a fourth, who was dodging their grasp over and over, laughing almost hysterically. An old dog lying outside a small tamzan was watching them lazily.
But Fox could felt chilly, somehow feeling as if he was looking at a world of ghosts. The feeling stayed with him for the rest of the day, and its traces would never entirely leave him. It would stay with him for his entire life.