"So," said Drezhe-va, leaning back on the stool to place her heavily-booted feet on the table, "is it really true that you're the man who started this War? A thousand years ago?"
I took a drink from my wooden tankard, partly for the dryness in my mouth but mostly to give myself a few moments before I needed to answer.
"I suppose I did," I said at last. "Although I prefer to think that the War was already there, waiting to happen. I was just…an insignificant spark that set it all off."
Drezhe-va gave a soft laugh. "You know, I’d probably kill anyone else who described the Traveller as insignificant."
I tried not to let the sigh out. Her tone was gently mocking, but I recognised the look in her eyes. Drezhe-va's attraction towards me had been increasingly obvious for some time. She didn’t let it affect her judgement or behaviour, of course. She’d hardly have risen to General of the Ario-ne army if she were that easily distracted.
It wasn’t a new experience, but one that still made me uneasy. I'd never liked adulation, but it had been difficult to avoid during this last thousand years. How could I fail to be aware of my status when I'd several times had to stop cities from raising temples to me?
Over the centuries, officers in my army had sometimes fallen in love with me. In one or two cases, I'd let myself be seduced, and I think I'd dealt with the rest without breaking hearts. There had been occasional jealousy or disapproval, but I’d never allowed my love affairs to affect my command of the army.
Drezhe-va wasn't particularly attractive. Square and muscular, her heavy-featured face might have been pleasant enough if it weren’t for the scar across the left side, cutting livid through her mahogany skin and giving her left eye a squint. Even so, the friendship between us—I trusted her with my life—could have tipped over into something more, but she aroused no lust in me.
"It’s not always clear who’s significant and who’s not," I pointed out. "I’m not so modest that I don’t know how I affect things and people…" I shook my head to clear away the images of the millions of people whose lives I’d affected by ending them. "It’s just," I added, "that there are forces, currents of history, far stronger than any one person."
"I know all about that," she snapped, her glare almost serious. "We’re not savages, you know. We've had a few historians at home, since the liberation: I’ve even read some of them." She screwed up her twisted face in concentration. "What was it? No man affects history: only the people do that." She snorted. "Always thought it was a pile of horse-shit."
I think I managed to keep my face straight. "I’m sure they value your intellectual debate."
She managed to maintain her glare for an instant longer, before we both collapsed laughing. After a while, though, Drezhe-va sobered and brooded, as she often did when action wasn't needed. It was usually best to wait till she’d worked through it, so I used the interim to refill both our tankards. The beer from the Delta was good and usually quite strong, but we could both hold our drink. Here, at the end of the earth, the Delta seemed almost like home.
Glancing across the tent, I could see my two pages stealing surreptitious glances. I pretended not to notice, and they pretended not to realise I'd seen them. I'd given them the evening off, but they insisted that they had to make sure my equipment was ready for the battle tomorrow. That didn't fool me, either: if it wasn't ready by now, it never would be, and I'd caught their shared glance when I'd invited Drezhe-va to stay for a drink.
It didn't matter, of course: there'd be no scandal for them to witness, and they couldn't even hear us very clearly from their side of the tent. It was an absurd size, but my generals all insisted that the Commander-in-Chief must have the largest pavilion. I'd reluctantly agreed, provided that it doubled as the command-tent for the army.
"Traveller," said Drezhe-va at last, uncertainly, "is it true that you…were sent by the gods? They tell all kinds of stories about you."
I forced a smile, trying to lighten the mood and divert her questioning. "They tell a few," I pointed out, "about the Warrior-Women of Ario-ne and what they do to men."
Drezhe-va snorted with laughter: she always found this amusing. "Point taken. Still…" She frowned. "You must admit, though… A man who appears at exactly the right moment and spends a thousand years fighting her," she gestured with her thumb, "well…wouldn’t you believe stories about gods?"
"Perhaps," I admitted. Actually, I doubted that I would, but it’s different when you’ve lived so long. "Maybe gods did have something to do with it. It depends how much you ascribe to their influence, and how much you believe we make our own destinies. I do know that no god ever stood before me and said, Go and fight the Demon Queen."
I noticed Drezhe-va wince. Like many recently-liberated peoples, most of her countrymen were reluctant to speak directly of their enemy.
"Have you ever met a god?" she asked, her voice hushed with awe.
"One or two," I said cautiously. Actually, I'd met quite a few, but I preferred not to talk about gods too much, especially to someone who believed strongly in her own deities. The issues raised by their reality and relationships were too tangled and complex even for most of them to understand their own nature. I'd met at least three gods who claimed to have created the world and appeared to believe it.
It must have shown in my eyes that I didn’t want to talk about the subject. Drezhe-va shrugged. "So why did you come here?" she asked. "And where from?"
I closed my eyes. I’d have rather not thought about the past at all, not tonight. I needed to be rested for tomorrow; and there were so many memories, each setting off another. In theory, I could tell Drezhe-va to mind her own business, and she’d accept it.
But I couldn’t do that. One of the things I valued most about her was that she was always frank with me, and I knew I owed her the same.
I sighed, opening my eyes. "I came from the west," I said. "From across the ocean. I’d spent most of my life there."
Drezhe-va’s eyes widened. "It’s true, then?" she breathed, as incongruously childlike in her wonder as always when I spoke of strange tales. "There are other lands in the west? What are they like?"
I didn’t speak at first, wondering how to answer that question simply. The vast emptiness of the Amha-Kyokee Desert; the sumptuous splendours of the Lul Empire; the infinite variety of the Thousand Isles; the wild beauty of the far northern mountains where I was born; the eternal city of Hafdosu. How could I tell Drezhe-va what it was like, when it was so varied? When it was so long ago? Maybe everything had changed, in the thousand years since I’d last seen the west.
"Not so different from here," I said at last. "Except for all the details, of course. There are countries and cities and wildernesses, kingdoms and republics and empires. People love and hate, fight and make money and die. They haven’t really got anything we haven’t."
"Have they got her…the Demon Queen?" she added in a rush. Her eyes told me clearly that, if I could say it, so could she.
"No," I admitted. "In all the time I was there, I never came across anything like the Demon Queen." In a way, that wasn’t strictly true, of course, but it would do.
"So why did you come here?" she asked. "Did you know about her? Was that why you came, to make war on her?"
I hesitated. I wanted to be honest, but I knew that I couldn’t possibly explain my full reasons for coming east.
"I knew of her," I said hesitantly. "But…I didn’t really expect to find what I did. I didn’t come for a war."
Drezhe-va regarded me dubiously, and I knew I hadn’t convinced her. Used as she was to navigating the forking paths of politics, she wasn’t easily fooled, and I was never a good liar. It was one skill I was proud of not possessing.
"So," she said at last, "what happened?"
"Well…" I took a deep breath. "It was a long voyage. I’d been on the northern continent…" Drezhe-va looked sharply at me. "I don't mean the Northland. There are two continents in the west, too, but they’re not linked as ours are. The northern continent's called Kaazhu, and it's where I was born…but that was a long time ago and had nothing to do with why I was there. I'd found a people, very different from any other, who took me in for a while, so that I found a degree of peace. But...memories were pursuing me. Dreams." It was difficult to explain enough, without touching on subjects I wanted to avoid. "Once before I came east, only for a short time, and I knew I'd never rest till I returned.
"I had to sail south-east, to…" I bit back the words, realising I'd almost given myself away. "I remembered the course from before, but I didn’t bear far enough south and landed up on the Oginami Peninsular."
"Far enough for what?" asked Drezhe-va sharply.
"For where I’d been the first time," I said. "Never mind that." She looked dubious but shrugged, and I wondered whether she guessed. "I beached on what seemed to be a deserted stretch of shore."
"Was it your own ship?" she asked. "Or…did they have ships going back and forth in those days?"
"Oh, no." I hadn’t realised that I'd never explained this, in all the tales I'd told her. Then again, few of those had been about myself. "My ship was called Searcher. I’d had her…" I tried to calculate, but I’d lost count somewhere in the second millennium and was never sure exactly how long I’d lived. "Well, since I was twenty years old. A couple of thousand years, at least."
I could see that she was struggling to speak but couldn’t find the words. There were so few people I could really talk to about these matters.
"Searcher was special. She was attuned to my mind so that I could sail her alone, although she was a large vessel. I only had to think take that sail in or two points to starboard, and the ship did it. It wasn't exactly that I thought of her as a person, but I felt very close to her.
"Anyway, I ran her aground on this little beach and lowered the anchors, so that she wouldn’t be carried off when the tide flooded. I remember…I remember looking at her from up the beach and thinking that she needed her hull cleaned and a couple of her boards resealed…just to be on the safe side, even though they hadn’t been shipping any water, and…" I looked suddenly at Drezhe-va, whose face wore a blank expression. "You’ve no idea what I’m talking about, have you?" She shook her head. Of course not: Ario-ne was at the heart of the Southland, a thousand miles from the sea.
"Well, I found a way up the cliff. Not too difficult, scrambling more than climbing. At the top, it was scrubby grassland rising gently from the cliff, and I could see forest in the distance. I'd no idea where I was at the time. I’d been east of the ocean once, a couple of thousand years before, but only to one place. I didn’t even know the size and shape of these lands.
"So I went exploring, to see if I could find any towns or cities. Even a village might help me to learn where I was. But I found nothing. I know why, now: I’d turned right, to the south-west, and that was wilder land then than it is now. If I’d turned the other way along the coast…
"Well, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference, except that I might have been prepared for what happened. As it was, I didn’t meet a soul although I wandered for about ten days. Even though it was frustrating, I must admit that I enjoyed myself. I’d been at sea for a long time and, much as I always enjoyed that, it felt good to be back on land. The forests up on the Oginami Peninsular are beautiful: very green with all the rain they get, but not too steamy. And you can almost see them growing as you watch. Not too many animals that would attack you. A few poisonous snakes, but it was easy enough to set up a protection charm while I slept. I could have happily wandered there for months."
"It sounds a bit like the Enla-ne forests at home," said Drezhe-va, her tone a bit wistful.
I cast my mind back, wondering if I’d ever been there, but I couldn’t recall it. "I don’t know about that," I said. "Favourite place of yours?"
She nodded. "We were based in the forests," she said, "during the war of liberation. That was fifteen years ago, not long before I first met you. I was only a captain, but I played a part in the Battle of the Glade and we slaughtered nearly five thousand of them in a day. I’ve always had a soft spot for those forests."
I didn’t reply for a moment. However long I’d fought, however many bloody battles I’d directed, I could never get used to the way my colleagues revelled in the bloodshed. Glad as I was that Ario-ne was free from the Demon Queen, and that Drezhe-va and her army were here to fight by my side, I could find no joy in the memory of a massacre.
But, looking at Drezhe-va’s twisted, pleasant face glowing with the recollection, I knew that she was the normal one rather than me. I’d always tried to instil a sense of idealism in the peoples who had followed me, to endure the horrors of war in the name of liberty, but I knew that I’d failed. Most of my army, if the truth were told, had far more interest in vengeance on their oppressors than in freedom.
"Anyway," I said at last, putting this aside for the time, "I decided eventually that I wasn’t going to find anyone. I didn’t even know for sure if the north of the continent was inhabited at all. I decided to return to Searcher, make the repairs she needed, then sail along the coast until I found something.
"But, when I got to the place where I’d left the ship, there were people on the beach around her, a score of them."
"Her soldiers?" asked Drezhe-va, a little breathlessly. I remembered myself as a child, sitting at the feet of storytellers, soaking in the tales and impatiently prompting them to go in the direction I wanted. It seemed a little absurd to see such a powerful woman behaving in the same way. But I hadn't spent my childhood fighting from the time I could pick up a weapon. I hadn't been too busy staying alive to bother with stories. I couldn't truly imagine growing up like that.
"Yes," I said, "though I didn't know it at the time. My immediate thought was simply pleasure that I’d found people. I wasn’t usually quite so naïve, even then. But it had been months since I’d last seen a human being, and I was over-eager for company.
"I climbed down the cliff by the same way that I’d come up, days before. It was harder on the way down, and I had to do much of it with my face to the rock, so they could see me coming down, but I couldn’t see them. And, when I finally stepped onto the sand, I found myself surrounded. A dozen halberds were levelled at me, and the officer had his sword out.
"I was armed, of course. I had my sword strapped on and I’d taken a bow and a light axe on my journey. But you know as well as I do that the only time one man takes on twenty and wins is in a tale told after half-a-dozen tankards of ale."
"You could have…you know, done magic," suggested Drezhe-va. "Couldn’t you?" she added, suddenly unsure.
"I probably could have done," I agreed. "But I didn’t know what they wanted. It might have been nothing more than caution, in which case I could talk my way out of it. So I decided to wait and see."
"But..." Drezhe-va’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. "If you'd only just arrived, how did you expect to talk to them? Or is it true what they say, that you've strange powers of speech?"
I laughed. "Of course I have. How do you think I spoke to you, the first time we met?"
She stared at me, confused. "Oh, but...I thought..."
Of course she thought. It was amazing how few people ever questioned my fluency in their own tongue, even if they wondered about my ability to speak other languages.
"It's one of my arts," I explained gently. "Magic, if you prefer to call it that. I can understand and respond to any language almost as soon as I hear it. I could hardly have wandered as much as I have without it."
"I thought you were just quick at learning them," said Drezhe-va blankly, and I wasn't sure whether I'd gone up or down in her estimation.
I shrugged. "I am, actually. At least, I was before I developed this art. But I've had to speak thousands of languages in my lifetime. Do you really think anyone could learn them all?"
When she didn't answer, I sighed and continued, "The captain said, In the name of the Queen, you are my prisoner. Tell me where you’ve come from, and why you invade the Queen’s realm.
"I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. Granted that Searcher looked as if she carried a large crew, one ship hardly made an invasion. But I thought that maybe this queen’s realm was small and easily threatened
"I’ve come over the sea from the west, I said, trying to sound courteous. I’m just a traveller, I mean no harm. I’d be grateful for hospitality in your Queen’s realm; but, if I’m not welcome, I’ll gladly take my ship and leave.
"The captain glanced at his men, raising his eyebrows, and several of them laughed. I didn’t understand that reaction, until then the captain said, You’ll find it hard to leave the Queen’s realm, since she rules the world."
"The world?" Drezhe-va looked sceptical. "Did she really? Ever?"
I shook my head. "Only the Southland and a little north of the Isthmus. Most of the Northland was independent, and of course, no-one in the west had even heard of her. But her Empire was at its largest then. It's been shrinking ever since."
"So it was her?" Drezhe-va asked sharply, and I realised that she’d been manoeuvring me into giving information.
"Who else?" I asked sardonically. "Though I didn’t have any idea at the time who this queen might be. It did occur to me to ask how I could be an invader if she ruled the world, but I didn’t think it would be a good idea.
"Before I could speak again, though, the captain asked me, Where are your men?"
"I haven’t any men, I said without thinking. Seeing him glance briefly at the size of the ship, I realised how unconvincing that was.
"It makes no difference, said the captain, they’ll be found. Bind him.
"I was going to resist at that point, but, before I had the chance to do anything, something crashed down on the back of my head."
"What was it?" Drezhe-va seemed to be holding her breath, as if the events were happening in front of her.
I shrugged. "I never knew. One of them must have got behind me. All I know is that I blacked out. When I woke, the sun was low, I was bound hand and foot and Searcher was nothing more than a skeleton of charred, glowing beams.
"It’s strange, but at that moment, the fact that I’d been attacked and knocked out, that I was bound, that I’d no idea what they intended to do with me: none of it mattered, beside the fact that they’d burnt my ship.
"I lay still, feeling power spread along the paths of my rage. I don’t like channelling power through anger and I don’t often do it, but I couldn’t help it this time. I could see that no-one was taking any notice of me, even the men posted as guards. They’d obviously looted Searcher before they fired her, and most of them were concentrating on their spoils. I wasn’t carrying cargo, as I often did, but you do accumulate rather a lot of possessions over a couple of thousand years, and there was a lot to take. My impression was that the captain was trying to record it all for an official report, but the men thought that they were each entitled to a share. On a couple of occasions, weapons were brandished, and I began to hope that they’d do my work for me. But it never quite reached breaking-point.
"At last, my anger and my power were strong enough, and I… Well, it’s not easy to describe using power to someone who hasn’t experienced it. But…it was as though I expanded myself and simply burst the bonds.
"They took notice then. The soldiers arguing over the spoils they’d stolen from me dropped everything and grabbed their weapons. The guards, who were supposed to be watching, tried belatedly to get hold of me, but it was too late for all of them. I…I pushed my power out in all directions. It’s like thrusting with a weapon, except that it thrusts at everything around you. It pierced…no, more like punched through every one of the soldiers. They must have died instantly. I hope so…"
I shook myself hard to cover the involuntary shudder, and looked at Drezhe-va. "I still have occasional nightmares," I told her, "about the way I killed those men."
"But…they were your enemies." She had a look of total incomprehension on her face. "They’d have either executed or sacrificed you, you know that."
I shrugged, wondering how I could have thought Drezhe-va would have understood how I felt about killing those men. She was a soldier, a professional killer. She was a good person by her own standards, because she only killed the enemy and didn’t use her strength to oppress the innocent; but, when she killed, she did so without remorse.
"I know I didn’t have any choice," I said at last. "But I hope I’ll never be able to kill without it affecting me."
She sighed, and the incomprehension hadn’t left her face. "Well," she said, "I suppose that’s because you’re special. Ordinary people can’t afford to be like that. That’s one of the reasons why you’re Commander-in-Chief. But…" She frowned. "Are you really saying you started the War because they burnt your ship?"
I laughed, though uneasily, and then stopped, wondering for a moment whether it were true. "Not really," I said at last. "Things might have turned out differently if they hadn’t done that. But there was a lot more to it than losing Searcher."