Strange Lands

Chapter 1: The Barba Lord

Per looked up from his workbench, his myopia making him squint as he lifted his head from his work. His long plaits, just now turning gray at the temples, swung with the swift, jerking movement of his head. I watched as he dropped the gold chain he had been repairing for Anjit, the baker's boy, who had just taken over the shop next door. It was a relic from Anjit's long-dead mother, and meant for the girl that had snagged his attention with her flashing eyes, thick, black hair, and heavy dower purse. No doubt she would have a moustache by the time her first child was born. I tried to squelch the jealousy that had burdened me since he had come into the shop last week, with his heirloom and hopes, but I couldn't. I am just not that nice, not like Cernu the Sky God, commands women to be. I watched the ornament fall with a strange lurch of my heart. It seemed like an omen.

Per barked at me sharply, "What are you doing out here, Benerit? Go back to the women's quarters. It is unseemly for you to show your face here in my workshop. We might have business."

I froze in the act of pulling my cowl over my face, not wanting to hear more about my unladylike ways or my hoydenish habits. "Ama Ri wanted me to ask you..."

It was then that I heard the first loud boom of the Mage-work fortifications around the city falling. I scrambled to secrete the stores of loose gold that Per had brought out for his day's work behind the false wall we had built only last month. Per's business could not stand another invasion. If he had to replace one more piece confiscated by the Mages as tax to support the wars, he would have to sell one of us girls. The boys were too valuable to lose. Hastily, I grabbed Anjit's necklace and tucked it in the safeplace, uttering the simple spells I had gleaned from watching the boys learn while I waited to pick them up at school. Women were too useless to be taught past a few household spells, so Cernu's priests said. Besides, schooling was costly. I had heard that Lord Azral's foreign wife read and worked magic, but for the rest of us it was just not done. Cernu's priests said the holy writs did not allow it, and we all accepted it.

At my use of magic, Per gave me a hard look that sent me scuttling to the back of the shop, behind the screens where Ama Ri and my little half-sisters waited in trembling silence. We worked through the hot day, listening to Per curse and groan as Mage-work after Mage-work fell with resounding crashes, each of us growing more restive as time passed. At first I paced, wanting to be out of the women's area, wanting to sneak out and watch the battle. Then I began lunch, my chore since Ama Ri was less than useless outside the bedroom or nursery. Once done, I set the steaming charger outside the door, knowing that Per would scold me for showing my face to danger, no matter how far away it was still. I peeked through the lattice, covered in thin, saffron-dyed muslin. I saw Per's back and his nervous pacing, his hair coming down from the three tight braids of that morning. That was all there was to see. No customers browsing his wares, no friendly faces come to gossip. We had all been through this before and we all knew the only way to survive the tension was to remain inside, away from the Mages and the warriors. I wished I could be outside under the clouds, that this war had never come to our land, and that I was born a boy so I could fight these strange, pale men and women with their foreign gods and wild-type magic; anything but what I was at that moment.

Our city had been under siege for the last two moons. It looked as if the Barba stranglehold would end soon. I prayed to Cernu that we would not have it as bad as some of the surrounding towns of our little kingdom had had it. The Barba were not known for their mercy, and the straggling refugees that had reached us before the siege had told tales of rape, torture, and slavery at their hands. They had also brought strange tales of the Barba being two headed, half man, half beast with four legs. They were said to be able to rain brimstone from the sky and call forth demons. Most of these stories I dismissed. Demons were Cernu's servants. Why would our steadfast sky-god allow our enemies to use them against us, when we followed his holy writ? The fault must have lain with the refugees' telling, not the Barba's ability to call Cernu's servants.

After hours spent watching Ama Ri cringing, her actions making the little girls nervous, I stood, stretching my aching muscles. "I need to fetch the boys. It is late."

Ama screeched at me, the only noise she really made to me anymore, as the other girls clung to her. Perhaps she would have smiled at me if Ama Udan had lived, my strange foreign mother who could only give Per two girls before she died giving birth to me. That event had been a bad omen on our house, and so I was relegated to the role of an evil slave, intent on destroying our family. At least to Ama Ri. Per was usually too busy with his work or his sons to care one way or another about me. If I had been lucky enough to be born beautiful, with sheets of black hair, laughing brown eyes, and plump, dimple-filled cheeks, maybe I could have been a temple priestess like my sister Brigerit. I had no such luck. My hair was rat brown and my eyes were watery gray-green, the colour of the River Sloath during winter and the time of rain. My mother's foreign looks were stamped on my features without the benefit of the strange beauty she was said to have possessed. Per came behind, his face black as thunderclouds. He hated hearing the little ones cry and expected Ama Ri to keep them silent, "What is it, Ri?"

Ama answered, her eyes dutifully downcast as a second wife's should be. "She will bring the destroyers down upon us! She will wreck what you have built."

"I want to go pick up the boys from school," I cut in. "It's past the sixth bell and they will be hungry. Scared too. You know Maister Philamen doesn't feed them after school, and he certainly doesn't care about them past what you pay him in coppers."

Per gave me a hard look. The boys were my duty and he knew it. He nodded to me. "You go, but bring them back a different way than the one you came from, and take Segunda with you. And for Cernu's sake, keep your cowl on this time."

I grimaced. Segunda was ancient and a nag, Per's nurse from when he was a boy. If we were caught out, she would probably die from apoplexy rather than protect me, or more importantly, the boys. Per grumbled, "I will hear no more about it, Benerit. You take Segunda, or you wait while I fetch the boys."

Ama Ri sucked in a gulping breath, suddenly changing tactics as she realised the danger her stupidity was putting her in. If she lost Per, she would just be one more widow in our war torn land who lost her husband to the Mages and their sacrificial magic. She screeched, "No, no! You know they will take you if you are found outside, those Barba. If they breach the walls..." Ama Ri shuddered, her eyes wet as she sought my thin figure. "What do they care about ugly girls and old women? You go, Benerit, or I will curse you ever more, you selfish girl."

Ama Ri's black-lined eyes were hard and ugly as she glared at me. I stuck out my tongue and crossed my eyes. She screeched again as the little girls clutched at her hands, crying and kicking up a howl that set my teeth on edge. Per's too apparently, because he grabbed me by my wrist and pulled me from the room, his face a black cloud, his brows knotted. Ama Ri had just claimed I had set the evil eye on her when he growled, "Why must you be so wrong-headed? Your mother was never like you, even if she was foreign. Sometimes I think..."

He bit off the words and went behind his workbench. I was stung. I never could be the proper girl that I was taught to be. I was always too fanciful, too adventurous, too awkward and ugly to catch a proper husband's eye. I was sixteen and unmarried. A burden in a house of mostly females, and growing too old to even catch the meanest, poorest of husbands. Who would want an untried, awkward woman, when they could have a fertile, pliant girl? Not for the first time did I feel tears prick my eyelids when I thought of the baker's boy and his soon-to-be bride. I had fancied him, and he seemed to fancy me, until she had come along, with her dower purse and her big breasts.... I cut off that thought. I had been prodding it like a sore tooth since he had made his announcement last week. No use crying over salt spilled in sand.

Per returned to me, his hand out. He held a short, bronze dagger, shining metal, with the fine goldwork and enamel of the hilt. It was too fine to be in our house, and in Per's possession. I wondered at it, but said nothing. Per did not like questions. He barked, "If they break through while you're out, do as I've taught you."

I felt the heft and weight in my hand before I hid the blade in my tunic, ensuring it would be easy to withdraw in case I had to. Per had taught me and Brigerit to use them when we were still little, right after the Barba invaders began making their presence known in our region.

He turned from me and summoned Segunda. The old woman shuffled out, her back bent, her gait painful. She had obviously been sleeping on her pallet in the storeroom, the only place she could get enough heat for her old bones in the night, especially since Ama Ri had banished her from the household proper because of her age and her heavy snoring. It would be bad luck to have her die in the house. Ama Ri was a superstitious, flighty thing. Sometimes I wondered why Per tolerated her, even with her pretty dimples, wide hips, and ample bosom. Surely the marriage bed couldn't be that good. She still used her voice to spew her idiocy, after all.

I motioned her forward impatiently. "Come on, before it gets dark."

Another boom sounded, rattling the cupboards on the walls, shaking dirt loose from the rafters. I grabbed Segunda's arm and made haste outside. I let her go as soon as we were out of sight of the shop. She was wheezing, even with her shambling gait. "You should stay here," I said, "I'll be fine alone, and I'll go faster too."

She waved at me to stop. "No, Mistress Bena, you will appear brazen if you are alone. You can never tell what these barbarians will think if they breach the walls and see you by yourself."

I snorted, another unladylike habit that usually got a good scolding from Ama Ri. "Look at me. I can't catch the eye of anyone. Most likely they'll think I'm a boy dressed as a girl."

Segunda looked as if she would cry at my words. They wounded her, as if I disparaged Per, instead of just myself. She leaned heavily on a pillar to a butcher's shop as she looked past me to the twisting streets beyond us. The air around us stank of turning meat, and flies whisked about, busy in their short lives. I sighed. Segunda would never make it, and we both knew it. She stood as straight as she could, drawing her cowl over across her face as two men hurried past us. I did the same, as she asked sharply, "You'll promise to return? No dallying around the square, no trips to see the Mage-works or the battle, and no hanging on to hear that old fool Philamen speak?"

"From my lips to Cernu's heart, I swear." I kissed my finger tips and raised them to the sky, Lord Cernu's realm. Segunda's eyes crinkled at the corners as she questioned my motives. I could always read her thoughts, they passed over her face as if drawn in sand. It had made her an ideal slave. She could not hide her feelings. I sighed, "I swear on my mother's pyre. I will fetch them quickly and return. We'll be back here in a half notch of the candle. No longer."

"Make it a quarter notch," Segunda said as she finally nodded. I saw her to a wine shop, settling her in with a vinegary pot of red and a bribe to the keeper, a quarter copper taken from my own useless dowry. She would be safe enough to leave there until I returned.

When I turned the corner of the street, I wound my hair up in the cowl of my tunic, covering my entire head as a matron would. Soldiers usually wanted clean virgins, not used matrons, at least in my experience. Not that they would want me at all, once my face was seen, I thought ruefully.

I found my way easy going; most of the shops were closed during the latest assault and would not open until word sounded that the Barba hordes had retreated once more. It had been a few years since they had been able to breach the Mage-works, and in the end our sorcerors had held them off with fantastical creatures constructed of fire and air. Many of the surrounding cities had not fared so well against our enemy. It was rumored that there were towns dotting our homeland where only angry ghosts and hungry dogs lived. The Barba needed slaves for their foul cities, and our fertile lands had been easy to conquer.

I heard the sound of yet another Mage-work falling and many running feet; the slap-slapping noise of sandals on stone almost deafening against the cobbles of the street and the high walls of buildings raised willy-nilly during the millenia or so we had been a city. A squad of soldiers, gay in their gold and blue tunics, swept by me and I hastened to squeeze myself into an alcove. I watched them until they made a turn. I was almost at Maister Philamen's school, and could count on him to have all the latest on the battle.

Maister Philamen was one of the few Freedmen from the south that had made it to our city. He had served the High Autarch in Lemu, our capital, for a few decades before purchasing his freedom from the great lord. It was whispered that he purchased it with blood and dark magics, but anyone who saw him would know the lie in that. Philamen was a harmless eunuch, not a sorceror. He was in his fifties, with a shock of black hair amidst the snowy white that adorned his head. His skin was black as soot and his eyes were yellow where the white should be. Portly was a kind word to describe him; obese would be more accurate. He seemed to always have a flagon of beer beside him, even when he taught, and he smelled atrocious. The southerners weren't known for their cleanliness. I always tried to stay downwind of him when I picked up the boys, but today I would brave his stench to learn what was happening outside. I wouldn't have been able to if Segunda was nearby. She would have not thought it proper.

The boys weren't the only ones waiting for family to fetch them, and I waded through a sea of snotty noses and black heads before I spied them. Little Uli saw me first, and waved me over. He was holding Jona's sleeve. Jona was my favorite, with his plain looks and even plainer speech. We got on well enough, especially since he wasn't Ama Ri's son, but one left on our steps by Per's sometime concubine, the widowed foreigner who owned the grog shop at the end of our street. Ama Ri hated him and called him a little cur bastard out of Per's hearing.

I gathered the boys to me as more soldiers passed the school, no doubt on their way to the Mage-works. Once I set Uli and Jona by the door, I sidled to Maister Philamen's table to place the coppers on it. I stayed there listening to him speak to a mother who came to fetch her son, one that was a few years older than Uli. Maister Philamen scooped the coppers into his palm and looked at me dismissively, once again confirming my undesirable state. I would never marry if I couldn't even excite a look of admiration from a eunuch. I shifted from foot to foot, wondering if the woman would ever end her harangue about her son. He, it seemed, had discovered the joys of rutting. She had caught him practicing with two of their serving girls.

Maister Philamen stood and escorted the woman to the door. "I'm sure he'll grow out of it, Madame. Most boys do once they've had their first love rash."

I covered my mouth with my hand. A woman of good breeding never showed her teeth, especially in mirth. The woman left, dragging her bleating son behind her. Maister turned to me, snapping, "Yes, girl? What do you want?"

"I.. uh......was wondering if you..." I stopped, not sure how to ask about something so important.

His gaze sharpened for a moment, and he seemed to see me then. "You. You're the one with such power. I always feel it when you try our spells. It's a shame you can't come here. If we were in my homeland..."

He said this as if he were speaking to himself as he gathered his papers. I retreated a step. What I did was proscribed. Females had too much wild power to control it properly. Maister's words confirmed the statement. I should have been able to mask my magic. I flushed, near tears as I realised that once again, I was bad and half foreign, not a good thing to be with the Barba outside our gates. Panic knifed through me and I pleaded, "Please, sir, don't tell anyone that I work the spells. I'm just a simple girl. I don't mean any harm."

"Nonsense is what it is," he mumbled, then swept his grey eyes to mine. "Nonsense that powerful mages have to go untrained because they have tits and a slit rather than a poker. Now what was it you wanted?"

"Nothing, sir." My voice was shaky as I said it. There was nothing remarkable about me except that I was unremarkable. Everything about me was plain, common, and bland. I was used to that role, and it was impossible for me to see myself as anything but Benerit ap Dawud, plain daughter of a simple, piecework goldsmith.

"Well, get on then!" he shouted. "Don't you know it's not safe for you to be out with those two boys? We're under siege, daft girl."

"Yes, sir." I retreated to the door, gathering the boys with a glare.

We made it home with Segunda just in time for the evening meal that Per cooked. Ama Ri greeted her son warmly and sniffed at both Jona and me. Per asked about the boys' day. It all seemed so strange and calm. Not like there were Barba at our gates, or old fat men from the south saying strange things about me. I shivered as I collected my bread and soup, and Ama Ri screeched, "Are you sickening? There will be no healers for you, if you do."

"No," I mumbled, before going to my usual perch on the roof. I could watch the stars pass by up there as I ate my food. I could dream that I was a beautiful noblewoman who could spend my hours in leisure, who didn't have years of Ama Ri's coldness and Per's looks of pity to look forward to. I could dream that I was anyone but myself.

&*&*&

I was awakened in the night by Brigerit's voice, raised in an angry wail over the distant clash of steel. I jerked upwards, narrowly missing one of the little girls' buttocks. I never got the hammocks. Being the least favored of the children, I always got the floor. Even Jona had a place off the rough wood, bastard that he was.

Brigerit spoke again, this time quieter, but with no less intensity. I strained to hear her words, but she was speaking too rapidly, saying things I didn't understand. Jona shifted, setting his hammock swaying as he poked his head over the side, scrubbing his hand over his face as he did. "What is it, Bene?"

"Shh. Go back to sleep," I uttered, even as I moved closer to the door. Per was speaking, his voice a low growl. Then Ama Ri started caterwauling. Cernu, I hated her emotional outbursts. Sometimes I felt as if I were the adult and she the child.

I heard a sharp slapping sound, a palm on wood, and then Per said, "... quiet or go to bed. You'll raise the dead with..."

I heard the bench scrape and then soft steps on the ladder. I scrambled back to my pallet as Per's face appeared over the ledge and said, "I know you're awake Benerit. Come down, this concerns you too."

I hastened to obey. Per rarely included me in anything but the most important family business. Brigerit being home from the temple meant that the battle had gone awry. I shivered in the cool night air as I slipped into my tunic and cowl; it slithered past by shoulders and hips, the fabric only serving to make me colder in the night air. Jona whispered, "Tell me when you return."

I shrugged as if considering, but knew I would. Jona was smart. Too smart to be stuck in the role he had in our family, bastard and unable to inherit the meagre possessions Per had to give. I wondered if the widow had been as true to Per as she claimed. Ama Udan was rumored to have been fiercely in love with Per, and the widow seemed the same, but Cernu's priests were always exhorting us that women were inconstant, unfaithful beings.

When I went down the ladder, the room had fallen silent. Ama Ri pouted at her corner of the table and Brigerit appeared placid, but with a hawkish gleam in her eye. She still wore her temple finery, the orange linen cloth of her tunic richly embroidered with silver threads, her cowl a contrasting blue, also finely wrought. Per wouldn't look at me at all, instead he strode to the lattice of the kitchen, lifting the cloth to peer outside. I slunk to Brigerit's side, assuming my seat next to her. She put her cool arm about my shoulders and I settled into to the embrace. She was the only mother I had ever known. Ama Ri had never cared.

Brigerit smiled at me. "It has been too long, Bene. You never visit."

I remained silent. Brigerit knew why I never could, with my duties to the family at home. Brigerit had been the lucky one, pretty enough to escape and serve the priests with her body, and try as I might to resist my baser feelings; I still resented her for it. It was an ugly, petty emotion, but still there.

Per sat beside me, his expression grim. "The Barba have broken through the Mage-works . It's only a matter of time before they breach the city walls. Even now, the guard defends the city."

My heart skittered against my chest. We all knew, or at least thought we knew, what that meant. I twisted in Brigerit's embrace, looking into Per's hooded eyes, so like a hawk's, so dangerous and cold. I shivered. I had seen this look only once, when Cernu's priests came for Brigerit. Suddenly I felt too young to deal with the situation. I implored, "Per, what do we do?"

Ama Ri sniffed into her cowl as Per answered, shamefaced. "I don't know. We've never... When I was a lad I fought in a war. Your mother, she was a prize for me taking down their sigil. She was captured from their camp, a Barba camp."

My eyes darted to Ama Ri's, so filled wth loathing for me for so long. Pieces of the puzzle of my life clicked into place. Per looked down at his hands, calloused from years of labour. "The Barba Lord wants all with Barba blood brought to the square this morning. Cernu's priests have been crying it through out the night. If you do not go..."

"Per?" I asked, feeling as lost as I had when I was six, when Brigerit had left for the first time to the temple. "Why must we leave? You're our father, surely that will mean something to them...?"

Per's strangled sob did more to frighten me than any other event had the entire day. I felt Brigerit's fingers tighten on my shoulders and glanced at her. Her face was stone, a foreign goddess' face, terrible in its beauty. "Is there nothing we can do?" I began again.

Ama Ri rose violently from her seat, the bench falling backwards as she did. "If you don't go, your unnaturalness will lead them to us. All they will need to do is look at you and Jona, Benerit, with your pale eyes and ugly hair, and know you are not one of us."

"You won't go," Per's voice cut through Ama Ri's tirade. "You are my flesh, and to Cernu's ear, I loved your mother as I have loved no one else. I can't lose you, any of you, to them."

Ama Ri ran from the room sobbing, and Brigerit sighed. "Per, you know we have no choice. If even one of us resists, their mages will ensure our city doesn't stand. You've heard what they've done to the other villages that have resisted."

"I have seen it with my own eyes," Per said, his voice bleak as he again looked out into the night, "I should have told you before, both of you, about your mother." Per stood, his back to us, his shoulders slumped. "She was one of their Mages, working against the Kingdom, for the Barba. She was sister to the Barba Lord. Fetch Jona, Benerit, he needs to hear this too."