Altest ya-so dyen dis tyum: shee gibbeway mee 'er boot. Gahstling boot! Dey twa fum da-nuguhsuhn a'da Nortlek-an. All Kaddisshillun habun sumkinna nuguhsuhn ya-baiumbai. Dissun allaway fumda Ottawaddas, ya-mam! Demdum traydas nebbetellun saklee weir dey gettun, yabut blentyfok noaabat ottaseel vurr. Sheebee awnryol peetch, mos'tyum; nut gibbeway nutton 'slungas laif-n-brett stilluns r'podde. Ya-so, sheebee maikin, aikan getta sayso. Purolgal! Sheemsbee' mbidee purlee daputtin'aff. Eben flainhai inda letta, could vurrboot geepa futworm. Ai habbanuvelt inswappa daboot. Avemar vut shordernfin danaldest soeybute. Dat 'ernameanadem, albai-anbai. Agamei! Beuns troisdai t'vra-rood fumd Gutherall; soda Sai-ans dellun. Lettun lib agina wile vuda whiteyshin Nortar in'im lodgeham longtym.
Eldest now-sure (yes, indeed?) dying this time: she gave me her boots. Costly boots! They two from the No-Go-Zone of the North Lake (clan? -land?). All Goddess's children have them some kind of no-go-zone, now-by-and-by (now and forever). This one all the way from the Otterwaters, yes, m'lady! Them (expletive) traders never tell a person exactly where they get them; yes, but plenty of folk know about otterseal fur. She is an ornery old motherdog most of the time; not giveaway nothing so long as life and breath still in (her) body. Yes, whatever, she is my kinswoman, I get to say so (if I choose). Poor old gal! She must be mighty poorly to put them off. Even (while riding in?) in the litter, good fur boots would keep her feet warm. I have new-felted the interior of the boots, for my feet are smaller and thinner than Eldest's shoe-boats. That is what she called them, always. Alas! (I weep for her.) We are three days travois-road from the Gathering; so the signs say. May she live so long and see the pale NorthStar in his native home at last.
Aieee! Whichever nameless scholar it was, some five hundred solar years ago, who made the gloss on the Compiled Chronicles of the Polarization and added capitals and punctuation marks to the run-on text of this particular Chron, ten thousand blessings be upon her! Not everyone obliged by the times to pore over this ancient tome is an eager and willing scholar who delights in the drorish task of untangling the thoughts of yesteryear. Nor, for that matter, are some of us any kind of scholar. I, for instance, am a political prisoner, set to this task in lieu of harder work in the fields simply because I can read. I can write, too, after a fashion; I am told that my strokestyle is nothing to write home about. Ha!
By thus dissembling, I am freed from the endless toil and bent backs of the poor copyists. I merely scritch out rough notes for a first draft translation or to proof-confirm another's first draft. I work slowly but am reliably thorough and accurate, as dullards often are. My formal script is execrable and my composition childish at best.
DEER MOTHER: I AM WELLE I HAVE PLENTI EAT AND THEY TREET WE MERY WELLE?/.
I suppose I ought to be grateful; unlike my fellows of the field, I have a better than even chance of surviving my term of 'service.' But there are many times during the day that I look out on the sweating toilers to wish that I too could be handling the sturdy hoe instead of this delicate, beautiful, and all too fragile glass pen. My rations are meager enough as it is; they dock me of food when I break a finely made 'gahstling' nib. But I have managed to secure two or three turkey quills to write to you between the lines. In a pinch, I can use one of my long scholar's fingernails, properly cut to serve the purpose.
I AM DOING SCHOOLLAR COPY. O NO!! MY WURST SUJECT AT HOME. YOU WIL LAFH ME AT. PROUD ME OF WEN GOME HOME.
Oh, my mother!
I write to you in milk
that vanishes on the page.
As you fed me long ago
from flowing breast,
now I feed you intimate
knowledge of our enemy
that you may grow
in enmity against them
even as my own breast burns
with the giving.
Set slow careful flames
of controlled hate
to this page, dear mother!
Read in warm brown
what I set down
in wan, white,
They have at least five thousand mares, half of that number ready to foal this autumn. They will be needing a great deal of fodder. Unless you can block the pass, flood the valley roads early, or complete the troop transport bypass canal before this winter, it will be best to send a guerrilla strike force to burn their hayfields by Midsummer's at the latest. The droughts come earlier here by a month or more, and if you bring some Greek fire, the June winds will whip up a firestorm they cannot put out. They will then have to import hay from Shangdo Province and you can attack their wains at several points along the route. Of course, they may make us Pollies do the firefighting; but lives must be risked in war.
Unfortunately, I am situated nowhere near the kitchens so I cannot employ subtle poisons as I did against the Tui-nah last mission. My ugly, unmarriageable face, ungainly body and lame, shambling gait make them think me subnormal. They suppose me to be greedy also and desirous of more food, so they keep me underfed merely to feed their own gutswollen sense of self-importance. Little do they know that we who lodged with the nuns fasted as a rule. It sharpens our wits as it refines our perceptions. When I beg for milk, they give me the sour, whiskey-drugged dregs; I feed it to the stable guard dogs and get my own fresh mare's milk in the dark hours. The dogs are well-rested.
Writing with milk
in the moonlight
white on white on white.
No one solicits me for bed-favours because I stink. I eat raw garlic every chance I get and rub pig dung on my outer clothing as a 'religious' practice. The pages I work with also stink of dung (and not milk!).
The other scholars insist that I work apart, and, preferably, sleep in the barn. This suits me well for my nocturnal outings. Somehow my lameness disappears by night, along with my cumbersome scholar's garb. In tunic and silhouette, who goes there? Just another Ranger on night patrol.
Swift as deerhound,
owl in flight:
cuts through night.
Defining my status as a political prisoner/family hostage was a brilliant stroke dearest Ma! They cannot put me in chains (always a nuisance to pick open and relock) under diplomatic rules; nor can they cage me. As an honour-bound, they can, by rights, only insult and spit to try to make me run away or fight; my feeble-mindedness deflects their enmity: I bore them by my uncomprehending stare. I have not yet been obliged to punch one of them silly to put the Fear of the Exasperated Lamb into their weak hollow hearts. They curse you for sending them an obviously defective child – worthless as a hostage – and judge that you have cheated them of their rights to a properly valuable captive. They seem to give you respect for having cheated them. They are a most odd people, dear Mother.
The mares are foaling too early. One after the other, they are dropping horrid-smelling, ill-formed abortions. Scarcely one in two hundred carries her infant to term. Often, the mother bleeds to death as well. No wonder they are horse thieves! Their own stallions are anemic, short-winded and colicky.
So are the women. I have been to the village. The glass works is there, fueled by charcoal gathered from an obvious No-Go-Zone. Trees, small game, coydogs, all life thriving except our own kind.
The women's work with the glass is remarkable to see: such deft grace carried out by such coarse hands. The glass pens are the chief trade item for them; the men take the pens and trade them for weapons and horses; the women get nothing, not even glory.
The warrior men, priests, and scholars, preening themselves on their superior status, insist that the broodwomen live closest to the No-Go-Zone. There is much amiss among the women and children. Perpetual sores and weak lungs are the best one can expect. Many children have badly bowed legs; the men crow over these saying they are born to be good riders. Few live long enough to prove the vain prophecies. Could you see them, Mother, you would pity our enemy as I have learned to do.
Many of them are not of this clan at all; they were made captive when pregnant and will not leave their first, beloved child. Then they are weakened by poor food and Zoneblood sickness. Many die by their own hand when their child dies.
How have these foes grown so numerous? It seems that high-status males take away their male infants at once from the birthing hut and give them to wet nurses who live near the men's quarters and act as sex workers when not nursing. No boy is a man until he has captured a smaller girl and kept her until he can impregnate her. If she is barren—or he is—she becomes a slave. Thus they breed up raiding armies perpetually at war. Broodwomen and slaves work the fields under the lash and in fear of being trampled or quartered by horses if they are caught fleeing.
Alas for men's pride! And my own future. The prevailing winds have shifted. Something besides the blue spore and the phosphor ash is blowing through the men's camps. There is grave-sickness here.If you do not come soon, you need not come at all. Our foes will be dead by the hand of the Goddess alone.
I do not know how to deliver this message to you without danger of infecting our people.
If I can, I will dare to mount the hill by daylight and raise the Bone flag to ward you off. Soon, none will be left to guard the signal houses. I put the poison mark on the sheath of this missive as a warning.
Done! I have raised the flag. Few saw me, none opposed me. I added my own mark so you will know it was my deed. May the scouts see it in good time and not come too near! I have set those who recover to cry 'Ware plague!' all along the borders. Why do they obey me? There are none left to take charge of them; they follow me like sheep. There is plenty store of food but we eat sparingly lest the grain be the source of death. Only stores two or more years old are opened for rationing. We have no wild meat; only men hunt the deer and the bicattle. The pigs seem unaffected. Horse meat is taboo.
The plague ran like fire through the warriors and nurseries. Only non-brood women and old men are left in any numbers. By the Goddess, I too have been spared. Perhaps, as the old science says, small exposures, many times repeated, have proven my blood against the unknown germ. I only drank from healthy, unmated mares. Perhaps the firewaters men mix with their kvass are tainted or their blood is pale. Their death-sweat is brown like brewed tealeaf.
I am tending the sick as best I can. Most of my fellow prisoners are ill. Our foemen die by the grain-measure every day. The enemy women help me to carry the bodies away. We cannot bury them and dare not burn them lest we send the sickness towards others downwind. We heap them in the fields and cover them with their belongings, then sacrifice a horse over the corpses. This is their religion, but it seems the only sensible way to prevent the vultures from spreading the plague. Gorged on horsemeat, the birds leave human flesh to putrefy untouched.
Beloved Mother, I dare not return to the land and loins whence I came. I have seen too much of death, my Mother. Thousands upon thousands are dead, men, bicattle, and elkenherds alike. The herds die where they stand in untended grain fields and poison the hay. We have set the horses free to find their own pasturage. The barns are empty and the rats multiply. The smell of death is everywhere.
War is no longer the dearest object of my heart. Perhaps the Goddess hath willed it so. I am leaving this place. I break faith and honour, but there are too few left to do more than disparage my name. All the chieftains are gone. None but small bands remain, too weak to war against you on account of my faithlessness and dishonourable conduct.
I am leading the women and children away from here, as many as will follow me. Few enough! None of those who make the glass will come. I go towards the territories of our other great foe. If the sickness fells me later rather than sooner, they may suffer the same fate. This is all I can do to assuage the just wrath of Belicora, our War-Daimon.
But I hope I do not reach them. What time I have left, I would rather devote to fostering these forlorn and broken former foes. Would that I could see your face, blessed Mother! After all these years of spurning motherhood myself, shedding the wise blood every moon as devotee to Beli—what look would you wear to see me giving the LifeLaws to a pack of mongrel brats?
Farewell to my sisters of the blood, earth, and hearth. May you thrive and be as many as the stars in lasting love.
Notes found inside a pitch-sealed jar in a dry sandstone cave on the edge of the Nuevamej Desert.
Extended exposure to heat had brought out the secret milk-ink writing.
These documents were written in the 'female thread' altered characters, long thought to be merely decorative designs used by women to imitate the 'look and feel' of revered (chiefly male) scholarly writings. They were, in fact, a secret cypher with poetry-derived keycode features used by a single lianbao-dang of the widely inter-married and geographically scattered Sangfra-Nwaling clan alliance. Remarkably, the character set remained almost unchanged for more than 30 generations; thus, these desert-preserved documents are still legible to certain scholars today. They shed a new light on the mystery of the sudden demise of the once powerful Ormunlatsans who formerly occupied the high deserts of Rocquiyanl-Stonia. It is now surmised that a variant of cow-stagger web-brain disease carried off the high-status meat eaters, leaving the milk and grain eaters relatively unharmed, but dwindling within a generation or two.
The most thrilling aspect of the discovery is the passage that translates into code-talk the far older written record that predated the Polarization. With the hints and leadings provided by this translation it becomes possible to begin the work of translating at least one hundred similar pages among the many thousands of Ormunlat Temple fragments and other arcana held in scholarly hands worldwide. Scholars everywhere are eagerly converging upon the Cadian regions like fireants invading a root garden, hoping to carry off some succulent prize of new knowledge in fragments bigger than their their own heads can contain.
The importance of the findings persuaded the current generation to throw open their baodang's private means of communication in exchange for lasting worldwide prestige. Out of respect, publication was delayed until the death of the last clan Elder who was opposed to the disclosure and the revelation of the code's existence.