Four women—a soldier, a scholar, a poet, and a socialite—are caught up on opposing sides of a violent rebellion. As war erupts and their loyalties and agendas and ideologies come into conflict, the four fear their lives may pass unrecorded. Using the sword and the pen, the body and the voice, they struggle not just to survive, but to make history.
Available March 8th from Small Beer Press, The Winged Histories is the much-anticipated companion novel to Sofia Samatar’s World Fantasy Award-winning debut, A Stranger in Olondria. It is the saga of an empire—and a family: their friendships, their enduring love, their arcane and deadly secrets. Samatar asks who makes history, who endures it, and how the turbulence of historical change sweeps over every aspect of a life and over everyone, no matter whether or not they choose to seek it out.
The History of the Sword
Chapter 1: Secrets
The swordmaiden will discover the secrets of men. She will discover that men at war are not as men at peace. She will discover an unforeseen comradeship. Take care: this comradeship is a Dueman shield. It does not extend all the way to the ground.
The swordmaiden will discover her secret forebears. Maris the Crooked fought for Keliathu in the War of the Tongues. Wounded and left with the high-piled dead, she was rescued before the pyre was lit by the man who most despised her: her second lieutenant, Farod. “Farod,” she said to him, “what have you done?” And he answered: “Do not thank me, General. I am like a man who has preserved his enemy’s coin; and I am like a man who, having seen his enemy safely submerged among crocodiles, has drawn him out again.”
The swordmaiden will discover that her forebears are few. There was Maris, and there was Galaron of Nain, and there was the False Countess of Kestenya.
The swordmaiden will hear rumors of others, but she will not find them.
Her greatest battle will be waged against oblivion.
— Ferelanyi of Bream, The Swordmaiden’s Codex
I became a swordmaiden in the Brogyar war, among the mountains.
I was fifteen when I went there to school. Fifteen, and a runaway. The old coach swayed, the pink light of the lantern bounced against the mountainside, and I sat with my hands clenched in embroidered gloves. My furs were cold. I made Fulmia stop the carriage at the officers’ hall so that I could give them my letter. This hall had once been a temple of Avalei; now fires burned among its smoke-stained pillars, and battered shields lay stacked up in the porch. Nirai stood in the doorway and cried in the wind: “What news from the Valley?” Then he peered closer and started. “It’s all right,” I said. “I have a letter from the duke.” Inside they were all there, Uncle Gishas, Prince Ruaf, and others. They passed my letter around the great stone table.
Sparks flew in the wind; an orderly tossed a branch of pine on one of the fires. High above, shadow-faces grimaced from a frieze.
“The other rooms have crumbled,” Uncle Gishas said. “Inside the hill.” He pinched my chin with bare cold fingers protruding from his glove.
“Forgive an old man,” he said, and they brought hot wine stewed with raspberries and I sipped it slowly and watched the candle flames torn by the wind.
“Well, Lady Tavis,” Prince Ruaf said. “Are you pleased? You are the first woman to have tasted camp wine since the days of Ferelanyi.”
Such cold wind, such heat from the thick sweet wine and from the fires, such elation and bitterness, such a vastness of stone. They believed my letter, every word. I took it as a sign. At last I lay down on a pile of skins and blankets in front of the altar.
“Sleep, my lady,” Fulmia said. He lay down near my feet and began to snore. The others were talking, fires danced, orderlies walked by. I thought of the school and what it might be like and how soon I would die and how it would feel, but these thoughts made me more excited and more awake. So I began to think of horses. It had become a habit of mine after leaving home and had never failed to soothe me to sleep. I began with the first one, Nusha the black pony, feeding her in the dark and the blue doorway and holding the lantern up and afraid of her teeth. That would be in the early morning, the season of sour apples. After Nusha I thought of Meis although she was only a carriage horse. I realized that I had forgotten Felios and went back for him, my uncle’s dusty farm, the smoking stove, the tents by the road. In the midst of apparent disorder, the horse: slant-eyed like a fox, disdainful, his mane full of ribbons. I went on counting horses but did not want to think about Tuik, and while trying not to think about him I thought of the Angel Horse, and how Nenya said she had seen it coming down to drink from the fountain at dawn. We made her call us early and crept out to the cold terrace in our furs and peered between the branches of the rose tree. Siski bit a rosebud off and chewed it to prove she could—she had once eaten candied rose petals at Grandmother’s house in the north. But we never saw the Angel Horse, nor did we see the Snow Horses that came down every winter to graze on the plain. Where they passed they left the snow. Sometimes there were stampedes, the whole world blanketed in the morning with their whiteness. At other times they passed lazily and gracefully and nuzzled the trees. Nenya threatened sometimes to send us away with the Bad-Luck Horses. Look Taviye, the Snow Horses have come. Frost on the window, the sound of servants stoking the chilly fires, and next door Malino in his cloth cap.
* * *
The school perched on the mountain above the officers’ hall, a great honeycomb of stone that had once held the nessenhu, the domain of Avalei’s women. From the ledge you could look down on the ancient temple and the statue of Avalei that had fallen and lay awkwardly on the roof. One arm was broken, the other raised and holding a shattered vulture. The goddess looked embarrassed, as if hiding behind her arm. On a clear day you could see the smoke from the villages far below and we would sit chewing on our knuckles and dreaming of pears. That was after we had passed to the second grade, after we had slaughtered the herd of screaming pigs in the inner courtyard. In the first grade we never sat outside, we ran in the outer court and washed the clothes and cooked and scrubbed the floors. And Nirai pulled me aside one day and said: “Your aunt is here.” I stood up, holding a dripping rag. My breath roared in my ears. “Go to your room and make yourself presentable,” he said, irritable. “She’s waiting in the officers’ hall.”
Of course she had come herself. I had not expected it—I had thought she would send Uncle Fenya—but once I realized she was there I saw that it was right. It was perfectly right that Aunt Mardith should come herself. She had set out from Faluidhen before dawn; they must have changed horses at Noi. Now, just at dusk, she sat before the fire in the officers’ hall. The whole room looked guilty: someone had cleared the omi cards from the table. As I came in, a noisy clinking erupted in the far corner of the room, where Uncle Gishas was shoving some bottles out of sight.
“Well, Cousin Tavis,” he cried, giving the pile a last hurried kick, “you have a most illustrious visitor. Some wine, Aunt?” he asked Aunt Mardith. “We’ve nothing too fine to offer—not what you’re used to—but a warm glass, at the end of a journey—”
“No,” Aunt Mardith said.
Uncle Fenya sat beside her, gloomily twisting his gloves in his hands. He half stood, as if intending to embrace me, and then sat down.
“Well,” said Uncle Gishas.
“Gishas,” Aunt Mardith said, in the special tone she reserved for inferior branches of the family, “you may go.”
She waited for him to go out. Her eyes glittered. She wore a gray cloak trimmed with white squirrel fur. Her hood thrown back, her hair in place, she was like a pillar of snow. “May Leilin curse and cripple you,” she said.
“Oh, Aunt,” said Uncle Fenya.
I tensed my legs to stop their shaking and gripped Ferelanyi’s book close to my chest. The Swordmaiden’s Codex. I had brought it with me as an anchor, and it anchored me: I stood motionless. Aunt Mardith, too, was perfectly still.
“If I understand matters correctly, you spent less than a fortnight in the capital, where you had been sent, at no little expense, to stay with your uncle the duke. The idea was to introduce you to the best society—though I hardly consider Bainish society to be of the best. In Bain—and please correct me if I am mistaken in the details—you forged a letter of application to this school, signed your Uncle Veda’s name, and stole his seal to complete the trick. You then lied to your manservant and induced him to drive you here. You have practiced a deception not only upon your family and your servant, but upon the staff of this school and indeed the entire Olondrian military. You have now spent three weeks in the company of soldiers, chaperoned by none but an aging manservant. Am I correct?”
“Yes,” I said, louder.
“Fenya. Strike her.”
“Oh, Aunt, really,” Uncle Fenya cried, staring.
“Do as I say.”
“I’ll defend myself,” I said.
“For the love of peace!” exclaimed Uncle Fenya. “We’re not going to start sparring with one another, surely?”
He stood and shuffled toward me. When he reached for my shoulder, I flinched, but he was only patting me. “There, there,” he said. He reeked of ous. His eyes watered; the bags under them were swollen. “There, there, now,” he said, “it’s all right, we’re just going to take you home.”
He turned to Aunt Mardith. “Isn’t that right, eh, Aunt? We’ll take her home and forget all about it. Why, it’s no worse than the escapades Firvaud used to get up to! Stealing all the pencils—you remember that, Aunt, don’t you?” He turned to me. “She stole all the pencils once. Our governess was in tears!”
“Fenya, if you are going to be useless, sit down.”
“I only meant to say, now that we’re taking her home—why, everything will be forgotten. I’ll buy her a gown myself. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Tavis? A gown in the latest shade—butterfly’s heart, I believe they’re calling it. We might even have them put a pattern of shields on it—eh?” He chuckled, beads of excess spittle at the corners of his mouth. “That’s often how fashions get started. You’ll be our little swordmaiden, with shields all over your gown. A red gown! Pretty as a sunrise!”
“I won’t go,” I said.
“Oh, come—” he began.
“No?” said Aunt Mardith. Her eyes two flawless mirrors of black ice. “Look at your niece, Fenya,” she said. “Defiant still. She does not appreciate our kindness, our willingness to take her back.”
“You call it kindness?”
“Quiet,” she said. She never raised her voice. “If you come with me, Tavis, you must not expect new gowns. You must expect a year of seclusion—enough, perhaps, for the world to forget that you have lived with soldiers. That you are irrevocably damaged.”
“Oh,” Uncle Fenya said, “not—”
“I’m not at all damaged,” I said. “I’m like Ferelanyi.”
I held the book toward her, hating myself for trembling. She rose and took it. She was so upright, despite her age—taller than me. She glanced at the stamp in the book. “Ah. Stolen from your uncle’s library.”
“The swordmaiden,” she read, “will discover the secrets of men.”
She looked up. For one breathless moment she met my eyes. A moment that seemed to hold everything: war and passion and Faluidhen and snow. Then she flung the book into the hottest part of the fire.
I bruised my knees on the stone floor, scorched my hands in the flames. Uncle Fenya pulled me back. Aunt Mardith stood above us, brushing her fingers on her cloak. I shouted that I would not come home, and she told me her offer would not come again: she had only come to see me for my mother’s sake. If I refused her, I would take the path I had chosen: I would finish my studies and join the army like the other students. “That’s what I want!” I screamed. I was on my back, Uncle Fenya trying to cradle my head, hopelessly in the way. Aunt Mardith loomed above us, the long sweep of her traveling cloak hiding her feet like a bank of fog. She advances by weight, I thought, like a glacier. She said I would have what I wanted. She said it would make my mother suffer. She hoped I would die in the mountains. To her, I was already dead.
“If I’m already dead then why did you burn my book?” I was on my knees now, sobbing. The book a black architecture in the fire.
I did not realize then what I learned soon afterward: that I could recall the entire Codex, word for word. What Siski called my “prodigious memory for stupid things.” Now I think I could tear one leaf from Ferelanyi’s book and place it at the head of each chapter of my life. For the mountains, secrets. For Siski, loyalty like a necklace of dead stars. For the desert, blood. For Seren, song.
Aunt Mardith put up her hood. She pulled on her gloves, adjusting each finger. “Come, Fenya. If we leave now, we can break our fast at Faluidhen.”
* * *
The next day, Master Gobries struck me because I had fallen asleep in my boots. I stood and turned my back to him and lowered my head toward the others. In the frozen air the stroke on the back of my neck was almost loving, opening out like a brush of fire and warming me to the roots of my hair. This is pain, I thought. It was warm and reminded me of the feeling in my tongue and lips after I had eaten Evmeni peppers. Where is the rest of the pain? I thought. I went and joined my line and felt that I was warm and more comfortable than the others.
“You looked like a demon,” Vars said to me later, admiringly. “You looked as if you could strangle him with a curtain.” And I was astonished because I had not felt the desire to kill him but only wonder, and disappointment because I could not find the pain.
That night there was a celebration for those who were going to Braith and we were invited into the masters’ drawing room. A fire blazed on the hearth and we were given teiva and honitha and permitted to argue and organize games in the courtyard. I ate my honith too quickly, the cheese scalded the roof of my mouth. I stood by the wall and watched the clusters of those leaving for Braith. They wore clean scarlet sashes and stood carelessly, a foot propped on the fender or a loose hand waving a pipe. One of them looked at me strangely, suspiciously, and then he realized who I was and smoothed the lines out of his face. I smiled at him. Of course, if Aunt Mardith had come, it meant everything was in the papers, they would have heard of me everywhere. The man looked away from me, stretching his legs. Because of my high rank, he would not shout. He would not stand up and say: “A woman? Here?” He would not even stare at the young soldier he had just recognized as Tavis of Ashenlo, the Telkan’s niece.
Outside the night was cold and there were screams where boys were running in the torchlight, a ball skidding across the stones. I went upstairs and down the gloomy hallway, counting the doors to reach my own. Inside it was dark with a smell of boots, there was no one there. I knelt on my bed and opened the shutters. The window was so small that I could barely rest both elbows on the sill. The cold wind blew, the night was immense and silent, and the peaks of snow shone rich as curdled milk under the moon.
Dear Siski, I wrote, I wish I were going to die at Braith. I wrote this inside my swordbox as there was no paper in the room. I thought I would use it later, but when we had passed to the second grade, and they let us write letters for the first time, I no longer wished to die. And by that time it seemed impossible to write to Siski, to come up with answers to her letters crammed with parties and flirtations, and if I wrote to Mother, I knew she would cry. So I wrote to Dasya instead. You should join the army. There’s good fun up here.
* * *
In the mountains in winter the peaks disappeared in the air, so vast and white that they became part of the sky. We craved warmth like bread, we fought the frozen trees for kindling and at night the hills were dotted with small red lights. It was a foolish way to camp and when the Brogyars came they slid down on us screaming and hurling their heavy axes toward our fires, and we ran and slipped and ran again and turning to fight I saw like a burst of shooting stars a sudden fountain of teeth. They scattered beside me, and there was an axe in the snow and a faceless man. The trees shrank, a blue light shuddered over the snow. The Brogyar was huge, an inarticulate figure of hair and shadow, and it was only his own weight that pushed my sword through his leather armor. He fell heavily and twisted my wrist and the sound of his harsh breathing became mine as I struggled to turn him and free the sword. There were black shapes and red shapes, sudden screaming and wet snow soaking through at my knees, and we were all running toward the gorge. Sparks flew over the snow, we ran like beasts for the thin forest. Kestau turned back for his sword and an axe removed one of his arms. It happened as if on a stage, there was a white expanse and a glow from one of the fires and black blood spouting, and he fell. Someone was screaming in the gorge. A Brogyar rushed to Kestau and knelt to cut his throat, bent over and wrapped in scarves like an old washerwoman. I thought I saw the flash of the knife. And only when they were gone did we find Vars lying in the gorge with a broken leg.
Then I realized that I was warm at last, as we were dragging the bodies into a heap, making long dark tracks, and afterward as we were burying them while the sun came up and the scene of the ambush appeared, ashes and blood in the snow. Vars fainted when they set his leg and Nirai stood above him making a list of the dead and wounded in the White Book. Most of us were smoking. Odra squeezed my shoulder, squinting in the light, and said: “Now you’ve tasted iron.”
That was the world of the mountains where we stumbled endlessly in the snow, dragging the wounded on sleds of wood and hide, always trying to meet another line of the army that never arrived or waiting for them in the ice-blue winter forests. We were always late or early. If we met them at all, the captains would scream at each other and throw their caps down in the snow. The rest of us sat in silence, watching. At night I wriggled down in my sleeping sack and thought of horses. The horses were marching across the sky and I saw that this was the swordmaiden’s life, filth and starvation and cold and the hills to come. When I couldn’t sleep I would get up and offer to take sentry duty for someone or smoke with Odra who also slept poorly and often sat up counting the stars.
“I’ve lost the talent for sleep,” he would say, and despite the cold he would pull down his scarf and show me the lines on his neck, running his finger along the grooves. I could see the scars clearly in the starlight reflected from the snow and he would tell me how he had awakened to find a Brogyar at his throat.
“Sarma preserved my life, but at a price,” he would say, resettling the scarf. “A priestess told me that the goddess had taken my sleep. What she wants with it I don’t know, but it’s true enough that it’s gone. I don’t mind, my life will be twice as long as the lives of men who sleep.”
When the snow fell we were forced to march so as not to be buried by morning and we tramped in the whirling darkness side by side, Odra and I with the straps over our shoulders pulling Vars on the sled and whenever we stopped to smoke Odra would talk. He told me about his daughters in the Balinfeil who were both unmarried weavers. The elder one rolled her stockings down because they pinched her knees, and Odra was sorry for her because she was moik—a Nainish word meaning silly or strange. “My life, my poor moikyalen,” he said. I laughed, and his gaze deepened in the faint glow of our pipes. He asked me if I felt well and I nodded and made myself stop laughing. Beyond the rock where we sheltered there was a blackness filled with screams where all the gods unknown to us had been released. And we would plunge into it and be pursued by those black winds and find ourselves up to our thighs or armpits in snow, and struggle out of it again and shout to the others and turn and get entangled with those who had failed to receive the order. “The dance of the mountains,” Dasya called it later, with a sneer. And truly it was like being part of a dance. It was like a dance in a dream in which one had a part but did not know what it was, a dance of strange and dreadful figures. When I was convalescent I had a dream of a splendid ball in an unfamiliar house: my partner was a woman with a tall headdress, with much black paint around her eyes and in one figure she gave a graceful bow and clasped the top of her hair and removed her head from her neck. That was a dream about the mountains, it showed the life of the mountains, that new life. At times we were seized by a sudden and absolute happiness. It happened most often when we were beating back an attack and then we howled and dismembered the bodies, choking with joy.
There was joy, too, when we sighted villages in the gorges: a glimpse of cottages huddled among the pines and snow, and sometimes even a light or two through the cracks in the ancient shutters or a lantern wavering toward a dark mud barn. Then we would come down shouting. They were lost villages abandoned by priests with names like Waldivo and Unisk and Bar-Hathien, separated by blizzards so that they thought they belonged to something larger, forgetting that each had only ten or twelve families. So there was High Unisk and many leagues away, Low Unisk. Dark villages where they melted the snow because the wells were frozen. The peasants were pale and heavy in their movements and wore amulets of straw and some could hardly converse in the common tongue. The women sat in the corners and wept or hovered around their few possessions, muttering, guarding the old tin pitchers and apples of colored wax, while the men sat on the floor morosely wrapping and unwrapping the linen strips they wore in layers around their legs. Sometimes there were immobile children lying in osier cradles. We sat by the fires and smoked the peasants’ winter stores of tobacco, we drank their gaisk until the firelight swam with secret signs, we made them slaughter their beasts and give up their flour and potatoes.
In one village there was only a donkey and everyone gathered to weep for it. Vars said: “If they take any longer I’ll murder the beast myself.” His leg was still bad then and he was lying against the wall and sweating; his face was pinched and exhausted and I could see that he needed the meat. The room was full of people, it was warm although the door was open and more were crowded around the donkey outside. A stinking old man, perhaps a village elder, in a sheep’s-bladder cap, offered up uncouth prayers to the gods of the hills. I pushed my way to Odra and asked him what they were praying about and he turned on me, tears glinting in the lines on his face, and swore at me, what did I think, the last animal in the village and we were killing it. The women had covered their heads with coarse wool shawls. And firelight shone on the wooden shutters with rags stuffed in the chinks and on the broken lantern hanging on the wall, and beneath the smells of dirty skin and hair and ill-cured leather and burnt potatoes there was the delicious odor of carrots. These were the villages of our desires where we would sleep at last and feel a pleasure even in vomiting gaisk and donkey meat: how clear the air was when I retched outside the door on the crust of snow and saw a few bird prints there, like writing.
* * *
When I was made captain they gave me a horse, a brown mare called Loma. She was quiet and strong and reminded me of Meis, and how Siski had said that Meis’s neck always smelled of strawberries so that one could pick her out in a dark stable. Sometimes at night I stood and put my face against Loma’s neck, closing my eyes to shut out the strange glow of the hills. Perhaps another soldier, also sitting awake, would begin in a mournful voice to recite a sein of the Vallafarsi such as “The Kingdoms.” Balinu, whence cometh fruit. As always this phrase reminded me of the ring my mother wore on a chain at her throat. Something had happened to me, perhaps I had fallen or been scolded by Malino and she was comforting me by showing me her ring. She unfastened the chain and showed me how the opening phrase of the sein was engraved inside the ring, in both Olondrian and Nainish. Her soft hands, the side of her dress, on the table an ancient knife with a chipped handle. Outside the fruit fell from the trees.
I clung to Loma’s neck in the storm that almost buried us in the Month of Lamps. I screamed at my men, for there was a village below us, all dark, and we left the sick and wounded on the rise and rushed down on the houses and broke the doors open and shattered the rotting shutters with our sword hilts. Rotting, the shutters were rotting and the beds inside were strewn with rotten sheets. We stumbled into the empty silence of the rooms. Even the cellars were empty and at last we gathered and stared at one another, trailing our clean swords in the snow.
“It’s deserted,” Vars said hoarsely. Suddenly I could hear him and I realized we were sheltered from the wind, in the lovely sleeping village with the blueness of the snow at night. The stars were breaking the darkness one by one. The others were looking at me and I spoke gently, hearing my own voice without screaming for the first time in seven days. “Bring the others down,” I said. My voice came out so beautifully, simple and full of reason in the silence. Later the same voice said softly and clearly: “Kill the horse.” She was the last one, I did not need to say her name. She was the one who ended the habit of thinking about horses, Tuik had not been able to end it but it ended that night with Loma. After we had eaten I thought, I will have to choose something else to think of at night. It did not worry me, I felt sure I would think of something. We were all together in one house and warm at last with a fire of broken furniture crackling on the hearth.
Softly the snow fell, and the men died softly. We dragged them out and buried them in the snow, for the earth was frozen. They died against the walls of the cottage in attitudes of sleep, their cheeks faded and their hair brittle with frost. Those of us who were well enough would totter into the brightness, seeking firewood, tugging feebly at doors and shutters. Once Vars and I came back together, and Odra, lying against the wall with his eyes very bright, said something about the sea and its thousands of angels.
“Don’t talk, Uncle,” Vars told him. “Save your strength.”
And Odra breathing quietly gave a bright and secretive smile. It hung motionless on his bloodless face so long that I thought he had died with it, and I bent and shook him roughly by the shoulder. But no, he was not dead. He died much later and before he died he made us listen to him and obey his orders, swearing at us, cursing us because his blanket was caught beneath his arm and because he could not bear the diet of snow and horseflesh.
“Take me out,” he snapped. “This air, a man can’t breathe in here. Look.” He slapped his neck and rolled a louse between forefinger and thumb. “Look at this filth. These aren’t soldiers, they’re animals.” And we carried him out and built a fire for him under the pines.
The low red flames, the blackness of the earth under melted snow, Vars hunched miserably in his dirty jacket, and Odra in his blankets propped against a tree, thin-lipped with scorn, staring out at the hills, at the snow that trapped us. His voice was harsh, he spoke of his seventeen years in the mountains and pulled down his scarf to show us his scarred neck. “A man is not expected to live for more than three years up here,” he said. “But I’ve lived nearly twenty and killed more men than the fever. They took me into Amafein six years ago and gave me the Order of the Bear, my daughter has it in her basket at home. The duke himself presented it and we were sixty-eight at table that night and everything paid for by the Olondrian Empire.”
He drew his breath in sharply, sucked his teeth and darted a glance at me. “Yes, I remember, you’re the Telkan’s niece. You’re his niece through both Houses and nobody ever mentions it and most of the men are afraid to speak to you as to an equal. Even you”—he jerked his grizzled chin at Vars—“you’re some sort of nobleman but you’re afraid to approach her ladyship, really approach her. Only I am not afraid and that’s because I know my worth and I’d proven my worth ten times before you were weaned.”
He stopped abruptly and leaned against the tree. Something went flying overhead, perhaps an eagle, its blue shadow streaking the snow. And then he began to speak again in bitterness, cursing the Telkan and this war that was not even a war. For many days he cursed us and then suddenly he stopped, he grew listless and no longer demanded to be taken outside, but we still took him out for Vars insisted the air would do him good. And we built a fire and sat with him in silence.
Sitting there, I breathed on my cold gloves and tried to find a train of thought I could use to sleep at night. I tried so many, and finally I found that simply letting my mind drift was often the quickest way to the dark. I remembered Siski singing “The Swallow in Winter.” She was standing with her hands clasped and her thin feet on the rug. There was the knocking sound of Uncle Veda emptying his pipe and I was watching her mouth as it opened and closed. Poor lost bird, you flit from place to place but cannot find your home. The green curtains in the parlor smelled of tents. Yes, and under the chair we found a dagger and an ivory comb. On the sheath of the dagger, a drawing of Tevlas in spring.
All at once I realized that Odra was saying something, he was saying “No, let’s stay here a little longer.” And it was night, and the stars had come out thickly within the circle of the peaks: they pulsed in the dark, as if trying to break through.
“That’s a beautiful sky,” said Odra dreamily, “it reminds me of the song, Let’s stay a little longer, the evening is so fair.”
“Then you’re feeling better, Uncle,” Vars said eagerly. His teeth were chattering and the firelight flashed up strangely on his face.
When he said these words, Odra began to weep. He was lying on his side and the tears coursed down his gaunt creased face. “My poor moikyalen,” he sobbed.
He wept for a long time. Vars was biting his lips and tears were on his cheeks. Then Odra grew calmer and smiled. He reached out feebly and Vars seized his gloved hand and pulled the glove off, pressing the rough hand to his lips.
“You’re a good child,” said Odra. Then he raised his head with difficulty and looked at me, stretching out his other hand. “You’re a good child too,” he smiled, “but why are you so shy?” I had taken his hand, I was kneeling by him in the snow. Vars was weeping openly and I looked at Odra’s face in the light of the fire, searching his eyes which were like two coins.
“He’s dead,” I said.
Vars was sobbing, bending over the corpse to kiss the sunken cheeks, pressing his living brow to the brow of the dead, and then he rose and rushed into the drifts, thrashing his arms, snatching snow in his hands and hurling it into the dark. While he leaped and screamed I closed the dead man’s eyes and stripped the body, piling the boots and clothes to be sent to the daughters in the south. And very poor and small he looked when he was laid out naked on the snow. And we left him there in a tomb of ice.
“You could, if you wanted to,” Vars whispered to me later. “You could get us all released with honor. You could send to someone, maybe not the Telkan himself, but someone.”
“No,” I told him, “it’s not true, there’s no one.”
“Yes, there must be,” he insisted in a breaking voice.
I found that I was smiling at the ceiling. “That’s the strange thing,” I said. “Sometimes I can hardly believe it myself. But in fact, there is no one.”
He turned his face to the wall and began to moan. And I lay ordering my thoughts while someone stirred and shuffled his feet and someone else kicked Vars and whined for silence, and I put my thoughts in categories such as Games and History and tried to choose something to think about. The memory of Dasya among the pillars beckoned, black eyes, bright face. But no, that thought was too strong and would keep me awake. Instead I thought of the Ethenmanyi and going to visit our grandmother’s house in a country not very far from the Lelevai. It was not far, but how different it was! I remembered going with Mother and Siski in spring with all of our finest clothes in trunks, and wearing my new green traveling cloak as we jolted along the mountain road with the sunlight flickering through the carriage windows. Always there were things to see in the hills, the narrow gorges and then apricot trees in flower among the rocks, and the funny herders’ cottages whose thatched roofs came down almost to the ground, and the children selling milk from pails. We stopped at Mirov and then at Noi. After that the road began to slope downward and the enormous valley opened below the mists, and Mother grew suddenly pensive, letting her jeweled prayer book fall into her lap and watching the land drift by. I believe there is no country more beautiful than the Balinfeil in spring. Great meadows slumbered beneath the soft pink haze of the fruit trees. We would see again the straight white houses standing up with their conical roofs and the fat tame musk deer tied to fence posts. There were the graceful and ordered fields separated by bands of sunflowers, and the peasants’ houses almost smothered in bushes of dark pink aimila. Also the smell, peculiar and fresh, drawn from the mountain winds, and also the strange and inescapable silence.
It was the silence more than anything else that showed me we had arrived. Waking at night in an unfamiliar bed in a roadside inn, I would become aware that although the window was open, the world was sleeping so soundly that there was no noise at all. No dogs barked, no midnight horseman jingled by on an errand. Even the mattress, firmly stuffed with goose feathers, did not crackle beneath me like the leaf and straw-stuffed mattresses of Kestenya. And there were no night guards playing kib on the doorstep. I am in the Balinfeil, I thought. And for a long time it was a pleasant thought, like the thought of an adventure: it meant that I would play with my cousins and eat honitha and watch the puppet shows and laugh as my uncles danced the klugh. And ride the fat and stupid pony Mertha, whom I liked to treat with scorn, assuring the stable hands that she was nothing to Nusha. And allow Hauth the assistant cook to terrify me with tales of the Bilbil crawling out of the hearth to make mischief at night. But after several summers had passed I no longer woke to the silence with that feeling of excitement: rather my heart sank. Ah, I’m in the Balinfeil, I thought, and the stillness of the inn and the roads and countryside in the dark oppressed me.
Even the inns, where we were awakened early by the severe bright ringing of a bell and the sheets and tablecloths shone with a daunting whiteness, even these seemed to possess the watchful and disapproving air of our grandmother’s house, of our own house, Faluidhen. That mansion of eighty-two rooms in which the important halls were known by color, Nainish-fashion. The silver room and the lilac room and the gray. The blue room where my Uncle Brola had died and still communicated by slamming the shutters viciously when it rained. The rooms opened southward whenever possible and the north side was shut against the summer dust and the ruthless winter winds: a dreary arbor of birch and cypress and winter plum survived there, along with the old iron chair where my grandfather used to sit. This chair was wrought with curious forms of dragons, dogs and rabbits and stranger creatures, goat-headed lions and winged dolphins. It stood alone beneath the trees, a little away from the house, covered with dust and dried leaves. Siski cleaned it off with the hem of her skirt. Beside it stood the timeworn brazier with which our grandfather had warmed himself in the winter months, where we once made a fire with the idea of roasting nuts and Dasya burned his arm and Siski blew on the injured spot to cool it. Dasya did not tell anyone but sat very stiff and pale through dinner, saying nothing and eating with his left hand. The next day the old brazier was blacker than ever as if it had never been used. “There must be a curse on it,” Siski said. And Dasya said that if it was cursed, so much the better, for we had gone to that strange place on the north side to play Drevedi, knowing that no one would look for us in our dead grandfather’s lonely patch of trees on the unlucky side of the house. Siski sat on the chair: she was Oline, the Dreved of Dolomesse. Dasya was always the Dreved of Amafein. Usually they made me a soldier or peasant or ill-destined king to be put to death repeatedly under the trees.
Afterward we went back to the house and into the silver room where the adults sat talking quietly in groups. Their chairs and couches seemed so far away, under the lamps. “How restless you children are,” Grandmother called. And sometimes everyone was restless or the weather was hot and we would go for an evening walk around the grounds, walking up and down the rows of flowers and along the pitch-dark banks of ivy, which gave off a bitter scent. Down the avenue of limes, everyone keeping to Grandmother’s pace. Voices floating in the evening hush. “Why don’t you keep dogs?” said a visiting neighbor, and Grandmother said, “My dear boy, because we are not under siege.” And when we turned we saw the lights of Faluidhen in the darkness of the grounds, and working by smell I found my way to Mother’s dress. I touched the folds of cotton and took her hand. “Is that you, my love?” she whispered, squeezing my fingers. “Come and walk with Mother.”
* * *
Later I thought of Dasya, when it seemed that I would never have the chance to think of anything again. At first I thought: How tired my arms are!—and I was glad my sword had spun away and lay distant in the snow. Yes, and it was pleasant simply to lie there with my arms at rest in the dazzling whiteness, flung back on the slope. The others seemed suddenly quiet, they had lowered their voices as if they were talking privately and did not wish to disturb me. The swords struck one another with a tinny sound, like that of children playing at dakavei in a neighboring courtyard. The air was fresh and sparkled in my lungs and then the Brogyar rose up suddenly and blocked the brilliant sun, and a moment later when his face grew clearer I recognized his sagging eyelid and his mouthful of rotting teeth. So then I had not killed him. He was breathing raggedly and the sound thrilled me, for he was close now, very close. His hair stuck out from underneath his cap, it had no color except at the edges where the sunlight made it glow. I noticed the iron studs along his leather jerkin where his coat fell open and I could see his gilded belt when he raised his arms. Then the arms descended, and there was pain. There it was, it was the pain of which I had heard, it had arrived. It was the rest of the pain which I had waited for when I had fallen from my horse or been struck by the masters at the school, it had simply been waiting for me too and now it stepped from behind a screen, clad in majesty like the body of a god. When I could breathe again I opened my eyes and saw the Brogyar through a veil of light and he was smiling at me, and I knew his smile for it was the smile of the mountains. There, his eyes were alight, he was biting his lip, unable to speak for joy.
Soon he would laugh as we had laughed as children in the inner courtyard of the school when the door was raised and the pigs came clattering in, their smooth backs and bobbing ears passing us in the torchlight as we stood trembling and holding our bare swords. “A pig screams like a man,” we had been told by Master Gobries that afternoon, “and also he has flesh similar to man’s.” We struck them clumsily across the eyes and along their bony heads and they cried out as the blood began to flow. And after a moment we began to laugh. A tall boy slipped in the blood and fell and Vars had a stripe of black gore on his cheek. When we caught one another’s eyes we crouched with impossible laughter while an unearthly clamor of woe rose to the sky. Stumbling over bodies, sliding, chasing the last survivors. At that moment I thought, Joy is one of the secrets of war. And now I saw that exultation on the Brogyar’s face and thought, He is going to kill me. This is death.
And if it was death, then why not think of dancing in the avla, of my mother’s ring, of milk, of Uncle Veda? But only one thing came to me and it did not come with pleasure but with regret, such sharp regret that my eyes flooded with sudden tears. I remembered our camp along the Firda, near the end of autumn, when the sable geese were flying in long arcs. The wind came from the north bringing the gusts of early snow and there were dark leaves massed on the surface of the river. I went up to the hills alone. Riding along the stony paths I heard the wind as it sang in the dry grasses, battering the little oaks so that they threw their acorns to the ground. A few hawk-apples withered on the crags. And I was lonely and happy going up to where the snow lay in the grass, urging my horse through the rocky passes, camping by myself under the trees, making my fire and cooking beans and drinking bitter gaisk from a flask. Sitting by my campfire I would take the letter out of my coat and read it again while the pines creaked in the wind. If it is possible make haste for I have much to tell you that I cannot write and will not be able to say in front of others . . . Deep blue skies with the mountains sharp against them and a sad twilight that promised an icy storm out of the north, and I was riding upward with my mantle wrapped about me when I saw the first broken pillars, gray in the dusk.
A smell came toward me, stone walls under the rain. There was a hissing sound and rain streaked down my hood and over my face. I had not seen Dasya in four years. There were no lights in the school and I supposed they had camped beyond it in the gorge. But a red glow touched the old pillars of the temple. I rode in through the archway, throwing back my hood in the sharp thunder of hooves on the stone, the sounds of the snorting horse and the jingling reins enormous under the lofty roof, and then I had slipped from her back, and he was there.
We greeted one another in whispers, standing back from our embrace to stare, and then he laughed and shook my shoulders. And I was laughing too. “Tav,” he said. There was a fire on the floor and a bottle of Nainish wine on the stone table.
“Vai, my life,” he said. He looked older and he had put on flesh and he moved with energy like an athlete, a soldier. He sat on the table and rested his feet on the bench and put the bottle between his knees to open it and passed it to me, and I drank.
“So you’re alive,” he said. He was still laughing and I thought how proud and joyful he seemed in his scarlet tunic trimmed with gold, and how as always he wore such finery easily, careless of how the wine dripped on his rich Feirini velvet. He passed the bottle to me again. My cloak steamed in the warmth. And we spoke of the war and our regiments and our losses, and that was when he sneered and spoke to me of the dance of the mountains and his laugh turned hard and rattled in the dark hall. For he had been at Gena when a regiment of new recruits had died in a snowstorm under the Miveri Pass. “They swallowed the snow,” he said. He waved his hand. “They just lay down and it closed over them. They were lying in rows like corn . . .”
We passed our bitterness back and forth, our years in the Lelevai, Dasya listing the errors of Uncle Gishas and Prince Ruaf: “Stupid old men,” he said, “who only wish to prolong the war because they’re tired of life at home and burdened with debts.” And we did not speak of the past, which seemed so distant now, but only of the future. His strange pallor in the firelight, his brooding eyes. “All this death,” he whispered. “It’s as if we’re eating—eating them. These men. As if Olondria can’t stop eating.”
We were sitting against the wall. The bottle rolled on the flags. I searched inside my jacket for my leather flask. I opened it and drank. The gaisk was strong and had a flavor of bruised grass and cleared the air of uncertainty. I looked at the smooth flames of the fire piercing the air in long clean waves and the shining bottle empty on the floor, and I thought of the dance of the mountains and how it had gone on since the days of worshiping milk, the same steps over and over. Generations now in rows like corn. And with a twinge, a shift in my heart, I thought of Olondria for the first time. I thought of it as a living thing, not a place to go or settle but a vast entity that grew and breathed and ate. Faluidhen in summer, all those rooms of empty luxury, and then, in Kestenya, the feredha tents pitched on Uncle Veda’s land. Uncle Veda sweating with fury, shouting: “Call me a traitor to Olondria if you like, these people have nowhere else to go. Nowhere, nowhere, we’ve hounded them into the waste and waterless places, it is a crime and Olondria must answer.”
“Olondria must answer,” I said.
And Dasya turned to me in eagerness and whispered: “Yes, you see it, you’re not afraid.”
But I was afraid, and I laughed and my hands were shaking for I knew his mind and that once lit it burned like a dragon’s entrails. I heard myself speaking, half frightened at my own words: “Why should we die for these hills, when we might die for an independent Kestenya?” I said the words in Kestenyi: Kestenya Rukebnar. Forbidden words. And Dasya went pale and then red, and his grip on my arm was fire. And lying in the snow with the axe flashing again in the sun I wept because I had lost the chance to die that way, because I was dying in the mountains after all, dismembered in the snow, because I was dying the death of a pig. And in the spring, I realized, I had planned to leave the army, but I did not know it until I lay under the axe. The plan had created itself in the dark of my mind and only now had it come to light, and I recognized it, and I wept. For I had thought to go down to Ashenlo and to the plains. And now, I saw, I would bleed to death in the snow. And all Kestenya blazed before me, flashing across the blue-gray sky, the desert like a ray among the clouds. The axe bit my thigh as the Brogyar fell, pierced by arrows, but the pain could not erase that gleaming sight. And still it glows before me and I see those shining mountains in another landscape, and in another war.
Excerpted from The Winged Histories © Sofia Samatar, 2016