13 September 2008

The Earth Goddess: first chapter

In the grounds below his fortress Lord Heite, Gehan of the Gehans, had built a small pavilion by the lake. On spring mornings such as this he liked – when the burden of his duties allowed – to come here to meditate or perhaps to receive in privacy an especially favoured guest. Constructed of fragrant timber, five-sided, and with a gently sloping roof, the pavilion stood at the water’s edge and allowed the occupants to hear each nuance of the quiet surge of ripples on the shore.
    The sun had just come out: the ripples were being repeated as a network of light on the cedar uprights and supports, on the lintel and across part of the ceiling. A chiffchaff began to sing from the leafless sallows. Lord Heite looked down again, at the water, and breathed deeply. He was at peace. He had made the right decision.
    A dry branch snapped on the path behind the pavilion. His bodyguards were waiting at a distance, on duty in the grove. They had let his guest come through.
    “Please join me, General Teshe,” he said, and looked round.
    The general mounted the steps and, bringing his bulky form to a halt, gave a correct but informal salute. His eyes were friendly; his broad, blond-bearded features were about to break into a smile. He had been travelling all night, but he looked, as ever, immaculate.
    The grey leather of his dress armour creaked softly as he accepted the unspoken invitation to seat himself beside his lord. In the regulation manner he drew about him his finely woven cloak, grey and darker grey, edged with black serpents along the hem. His kneeboots gleamed. Even when seated, he kept his shoulders perfectly square; yet he was also at ease. There was something permanent about the man, timeless, infallible. It had been the same twenty years ago, when he and Lord Heite had been boys together at the academy.
    “Well, Kasha,” said Lord Heite, free now from the ears of his entourage. “Tell me. How are you?”
    “Growing older, liege.” The smile broadened; his teeth were white. “The pagans in my care would age even Heite Gehan.”
    “How did you once describe them? ‘Fractious’? Was that the word?”
    “Let us say that their resentment of authority is second only to their idleness.”
    “On the contrary, Kasha. You have tamed them remarkably quickly. The returns from your province tell me so.”
    “You flatter me, my lord. Much remains to be done.”
    “But not by you.” For a moment Lord Heite regarded the peaceful waters of the lake. Then he said, “Do you remember my kinsman, Brennis Gehan Fifth?”
    “Only vaguely.”
    “His father tried to make the island country independent of the mainland. When he inherited Valdoe, Brennis Fifth pursued much the same idea. We tolerated the position until he, fortunately or otherwise, went out of his mind. It then became necessary to replace him.”
    “With General Hewzane,” General Teshe recalled.
    “Exactly. That was seven years ago. Did you ever meet Torin Hewzane?”
    “Yes, my lord. He is of the Garland.”
    “Well, now of course he is Lord Brennis. Unlike you, Kasha, he lets such titles go to his head. I must say he has disappointed us. A mistake was made. We misjudged him.”
    General Teshe sat forward, incredulous.
    “We are informed,” Lord Heite went on, “that he has been stealing from us. He wishes, apparently, to finance the start of his own dynasty. In private he is already said to style himself ‘Brennis Hewzane First’. We understand that next year he will be strong enough to approach the barbarian warlords in the east. There is no reason to imagine that his envoys will be received other than cordially. First to be attacked would be our eastern holdings; from there he would encroach upon the citadel itself, using Brennis as a base.”
    “Forgive me, liege, but is your information reliable?”
    General Teshe was plainly stunned.
    “Even had this matter not come to light, we should by now anyway have considered transferring him to some lesser post. He has failed to carry out his brief. Settlement and forest clearance have not progressed at the required rate. Only three new forts have been finished. Fraudulent or not, the harvest returns have been consistently bad. He is unable to control the farmers without recourse to the most absurd and destructive measures: at least seven villages have been burned to the ground. As a result, a substantial number of people have returned to the mainland. More are expected to follow. The whole system of taxation on Brennis is in jeopardy. With Hewzane as their model, corruption has spread to the regional commanders, to the beilins, and even to certain officers and Trundlemen at Valdoe. Until we know how far it has gone we dare not risk a move. By the autumn, though, our information will be complete. At that time, Kasha, you will accompany Bohod Khelle and his annual commission of inspection. On arrival at Valdoe, you will publicly dispose of Hewzane and announce yourself Protector of Gehan Brennis Sixth.”
    “I … do not understand, my lord. I thought Brennis Fifth died childless.”
    “So it is generally believed.” A note of distaste had appeared in Lord Heite’s voice. “Lady Brennis, as you may have heard, was with child at the time of her husband’s death. Unluckily she was lost during the siege of Valdoe, and although her body was not accounted for, the Prime is satisfied that she was killed.” Lord Heite paused. “However, among the various aberrations leading to his downfall, Brennis Fifth contracted a liaison with his sister, the Lady Ika. The result is a boy, now six years of age. In the absence of a legitimate heir, the Prime has decreed that this child shall be designated ‘Brennis Gehan Sixth’. Until he comes of age you are to be his guardian at Valdoe. In effect you will control the island of Brennis and be accountable only to me.”
    “Where is the boy now?”
    “At Valdoe, with his mother. During the siege she escaped to a village close by. On my orders she was found and brought back to the Trundle, where she has remained ever since.”
    “Does Hewzane know all this?”
    “Of course. But he would not dare harm the child. I had even hoped its presence might have reminded him of his true position and tempered his conduct. There are still those in the Valdoe domain who remember Brennis Fifth, if not fondly, then at least with a certain nostalgia. At least the farmers knew where they were. I suspect the appearance of another Gehan at Valdoe will be met with equanimity, or even approval. That is one of the main reasons the High Council has decided to confer Brennis on this boy.” Lord Heite stood up; the general did the same, still trying to absorb the implications of all he had been told. “Shall we view the herons, Kasha?”
    More than two hundred and eighty years earlier, at the foundation of Hohe and the Gehan empire, herons had begun to nest at the lake below the citadel. Overlooked by the temple, they had established their colony in the southern end, among islands wooded with alder and birch. The trees were bleached with droppings; almost every fork and crutch among the outer branches held its mattress of sticks, repaired and built upon year after year or, for no obvious reason, abandoned and allowed to disintegrate. To the priests in the temple, and then to the men of the garrison, the birds had become sacred symbols of the Gehan ideal. The grace of the heron’s flight, its patience, persistence, and skill in hunting, its noble and independent nature, its courage in the defence of its young, its cooperation with others of its kind to secure the continuance of its race: all these made it an exemplar of the eternal truths. Gentleness through strength – this was the path to the highest goal of the empire and of the Prime, and as the empire grew so did the heronry, until the trees were full and ninety or more pairs came each year to breed.
    On a morning such as this, viewed against the rise of the citadel, the air above the heronry was a confusion of arrival and departure: in many nests the hungry young birds, grey and fluffy, could already be seen. But Lord Heite, one hand on the rail of the viewing platform, was more interested in observing his guest.
    “You do not seem to be enjoying the spectacle, Kasha.”
    On the way here, following the plankwalk through the ornamental marsh, the general had been rather quiet, and for the last few minutes he had spoken hardly at all.
    “I am troubled, my lord,” he said at last.
    “Duty is always onerous,” said Lord Heite. “That is how we grow stronger.”
    “I know, my lord. But I remember Torin Hewzane as a brother officer, an officer of the Garland. What I must do is not easy.” The general put both hands on the rail. “Is there no way he can be saved?”
    Lord Heite did not answer at once. Out of respect for his friend, he reconsidered the decision with which he had been struggling for many weeks past.
    They were separated from the trees by a hundred yards of water. Wildfowl of many sorts were lazing in the sunshine, safe in the lee of the island; bright reflections, sisters of those that had lit up the pavilion, were moving across the bare branches above their heads. It made a peaceful scene. Lord Heite allowed his gaze to travel upwards, to the herons, and then to the sheer wooden walls of the temple and of the citadel.
    “There is no choice,” he said. “Hewzane must die.”

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