The first birds of the morning were just beginning to chirp when Jeris came out of the hut where she’d spent the night and started down the path towards the valley.
The hut had been draughty, with a floor of hard-packed earth and logs for walls, with lots of chinks to let the mountain wind in. It had been an abandoned trader’s storehouse, not a dwelling, and a heap of coal still lay against the far wall to testify to its purpose. Jeris had had only her cloak to wrap around her for warmth and her bag to act as a pillow, but she hadn’t complained. There was nobody to complain to, and no point complaining; she was here of her own free will, and had known what to expect.
At least, she’d thought, as she’d wriggled round trying to find a less hideously uncomfortable position on the floor, she’d not been compelled to spend the night in the open, on the mountain slopes, though she’d have done that too, if necessary. Even more fortunately, she could spend the night here alone with no fear of being attacked. After all, that was why she could come here at all – the war was over.
Down in the valley, she would be in the Enemy’s territory, and she could now go there with no consequences at all, because the war was over.
The morning sun was a wash of gold on the peaks, but the path at her feet was sunk in heavy purple shadow, and Jeris kept her eyes on it. She had no desire to twist an ankle, or, worse, break a leg. Even though the war was over, it was still possible to lie on the mountainside until she died of hunger or exposure, and she’d come too far already for that.
A little while later she came to a chasm splitting the slope. Far below, there was a gurgling of water, and she saw the morning light reflecting on spray as the rushing mountain stream pounded on rocks. There had once been a bridge here, but someone – from which side she couldn’t tell, nor did it matter now – had destroyed it. The ruined ends stuck out from either side, like amputated fingers that were still trying to meet. Someone had since laid a simple log of wood across the broken centre, and she crossed over that, crawling on all fours because she could not trust her balance. She was not athletic, and had had no experience in this kind of thing.
Far behind her, the streets of the cities must still be filled with rejoicing at the end of the war, and the manner in which it had ended, but Jeris had no interest in that. She had much more important things on her mind. If asked, she would have said she was on a pilgrimage, but it was even more than that.
It was almost noon, and she was well down the mountain, before she came to the first enemy village. It was deserted, the doors of the houses left open, the patches of flowers outside already wilted and drooping. There was a small temple, inside which she could see the idol of one of the enemy’s rude gods. She did not enter, but drank from the fountain outside the temple. The enemy’s temples always had a spring or a fountain nearby, and these would never be poisoned, so the water was safe. After that she sat on the steps to eat a little of the food in her bag. There was very little food left, but then she hadn’t that much further to go.
It was mid afternoon, and she had almost reached the valley, when she came to the second enemy village. This was also the first time she saw one of the enemy. She had, of course, seen the prisoners who had been paraded in chains through the streets of the city, with the populace jeering and pelting them with stones and refuse; but this was the first time she’d seen one of the enemy during her journey, and in their territory besides. The war was over, though, and the enemy was just sitting on the side of the path, on a rock, staring at her with no expression at all.
Goblins, or orcs, her people called them, and other names beside. The enemy on the rock was a young male, immensely sturdy of build and twice as broad as one of the men of Jeris’ own people, though a head shorter. His high cheekbones made his face so broad that his eyes looked tiny, and his neck was so thickly muscled it seemed as wide as his head. But his mouth hung slackly, and when Jeris stopped to look at him, he merely stared as though through her. When she, obeying a sudden impulse, snapped her finger next to his ear, he turned his head slowly towards the sound, but made no other movement at all.
She left him sitting there and went down to the village.
This village was much larger than the previous one, almost a town. Here, there were some of the enemy, and for the first time Jeris realised how utter, total and devastating her own peoples’ victory had been. She saw more of the men, some stumbling around, some merely sitting by the side of the street, staring with vacant eyes. A woman knelt by one young man, a woman who by any standards – even by those of Jeris’ own people – would have been pretty – and she was spooning food from a bowl into his mouth with one hand while wiping away what he dribbled out with the other. She saw Jeris, leapt to her feet, and disappeared into an alley between two houses.
All around, Jeris could feel watching eyes, as she walked down the street. The silence was total, the normal noises of a village having stopped, and she felt as though the entire place was holding its breath waiting for her to leave. Once, she looked over her shoulder. At the far end of the street behind her, she saw a small knot of women, standing together, watching her. As soon as they saw her turn around, they scattered like disturbed ants.
She went to the temple, washed her face and hands in the fountain, and drank some water. She was suddenly far from hungry and had no desire to touch what remained of the food in her bag. There was an old priest standing beside the temple. Jeris saw his white hair and wispy beard, and thought his age might have protected him, so she went to see if she could talk to him. But he was just as slack-jawed and empty-eyed as all the other men she’d seen.
It was at that moment that something hit her. It was a sharp blow on the leg, a searing pain just above the knee, and sent her stumbling back with a cry. She just managed to keep her balance as the child came at her again, the sharp piece of broken wood in his hand raised to strike once more.
Someone screamed something, a single word. It was, naturally, in the enemy’s language, so she couldn’t understand, but the message was clear. An instant later, a woman had thrown herself out of a house and clutched the child in her arms, pulling him away though he struggled. The woman pulled the piece of wood out of his hand and threw it away, looking up at Jeris with fear-filled eyes.
“No hurt him,” she said in Jeris’ language, though the words were so thickly accented they were almost undecipherable. Jeris’ people said the enemy didn’t have mouths capable of handling human speech. “He young, no understand.”
Jeris didn’t say anything for a moment. She looked at her leg. There was a small spot of blood on the cloth, but it didn’t seem to be spreading, and the pain had already diminished to a dull ache. Maybe it would hurt again later, but for now it would be all right.
The woman had pushed the boy inside, and now she stood, looking fearfully at Jeris, her back defensively to the door. “You please not punish?”
“I’m not interested in punishing anyone,” Jeris said slowly and clearly. “But I need to meet your High Chieftainess, the Kw’an. I don’t know where she is. So I need a guide. Do you understand?”
“The Kw’an, yes,” Jeris repeated. “I’ve come to your country to meet her and her Council. I need someone to take me to her.”
For a long moment the enemy woman looked at Jeris, and then abruptly nodded, head jerking like a pecking bird. “My daughter go.”
They reached the enemy capital the next morning. The guide, a young girl with a distinct facial resemblance to the boy who’d attacked Jeris, had spoken not a word the whole way, not even in response to questions. Jeris didn’t know if it was because she didn’t speak Jeris’ language or because she didn’t want to answer. But when Jeris had offered her the food remaining in her bag, she’d turned away and refused to touch a morsel of it.
If the village had been bad, the city was much, much worse. The Enemy had not been defeated so much as destroyed. The streets were almost deserted except for a few hurrying women, some of them with children in tow – and, of course, except for the silent, slumped shapes of men, sitting where the attack had taken them, or where it had led them to wander. Eventually, what remained of their families might make arrangements to carry them back home, or maybe the Kw’an would have some kind of hospice set up where they might live out their lives. For now, they were just inanimate lumps of flesh and bone and destroyed minds.
The Kw’an’s palace was a nondescript building opposite a temple, and the guide pointed to it and walked away without a further word. Jeris tidied herself up as much as she could at the temple spring before she crossed to the door of the palace, where a woman guard was standing watching her.
“Kw’an,” Jeris said. The guard nodded quickly and stepped back, as though Jeris, with her soft body and traveller’s clothing, her total lack of weapons, frightened this hard-muscled warrior woman with her heavy spear and her studded armour. But then Jeris’ people’s victory had earned her the right to inspire such fear.
The Kw’an herself was waiting for Jeris in the Council Chamber, a round room with seats all around the walls and a large throne-like seat at the end far from the door. She got up as soon as Jeris entered and walked towards her, hands clasped together.
“I don’t know who you are or why you’ve come,” she said. Her command of Jeris’ language was excellent, without a hint of an accent. “We have surrendered unconditionally, we signed the treaties, and we have no means of defending ourselves. There is nothing more we can do. Or,” she added, “have you merely come to gloat? You have that right – we cannot deny it to you.”
Jeris studied the woman. Even in her soft flat shoes, she was tall for one of the Enemy, almost as tall as Jeris herself, broad of frame and still strongly muscled, though she was past middle age. Her greying hair spilled from beneath the edges of the velvet cap of office she wore, and the cap itself was worn, the metal ornamentation round its edges tarnished. Her face was grim with worry.
“Please summon your Council, Your Highness,” she replied calmly, seating herself and trying not to wince at the pain in her thighs and calves. “I will tell you everything when they are here, or not at all.”
The Council had once comprised twenty members, but fully half – the men – were, of course, missing. The rest arrived in ones and twos, and looked at Jeris with mingled curiosity and fear. At last the Kw’an nodded.
“They are all here,” she said. “You can begin.”
Jeris stood up and looked around. “You know as well as I do how this war has turned out,” she said. “I’m not here to talk about that, but to tell you some things about what happened on our side. And then I’ll tell you who I am, and what I came here to do.”
Nobody said anything. She had not expected them to.
“I’m not going to justify the war,” she said. “I’m not going to claim that we had to start it to save ourselves from you. In fact, I’ll admit that a lot of us knew from the start that you had no reason to attack us, and that you probably never would. But those of us who knew it had no voice in the government or the Royal Court.
“There the claims were always the same. Your very existence was a threat to us, an intolerable threat that had to be crushed before it was too late. There were almost as many you as of us, and moreover you had the strategic mountain heights from which you could sweep down on to our helpless plains. Your warriors lusted after our riches and our women, and so on.” She looked around, and added defiantly, “And, of course, you weren’t really human. You were something less, worse than apes. You were goblins and trolls.
“And so the demands for war kept building, and the people kept being fed tales of how deadly a threat you were, and how war – war at once, war to total victory – was the only way we could save our lands, our women, and our children. The only problem was, of course, that such a war, given that you actually had almost the same numbers and occupied the mountain heights, would have been terribly costly, and probably ended in defeat and failure.”
“We already know all this,” one of the Council said. “Why tell us this again?”
“Quiet,” the Kw’an ordered. “Let her talk.”
“So the Court,” Jeris continued, with a nod to the Kw’an, “summoned the royal magicians, the astrologers, the psychics, and the scientists, and anyone else who might be able to think of a way to strike such a blow that you would be compelled to sue for peace. The magicians took to their spells and cauldrons, the astrologers to their star charts, the scientists to their laboratories, and what they did there nobody knows. It didn’t matter anyway, because none of them came up with anything.
“It was a different matter with the psychics. They got together and they made their experiments, first in the abstract and then in reality. By then, the demands for war had become so great that the Court had started sending raiding parties up into the mountains to capture some of your outposts, so there were prisoners to experiment on.” She saw a shudder pass through the Council. “Yes, and you know what they came up with. It was the Weapon – something they created purely with the power of their combined minds.
“At first, not even the King believed that this Weapon was possible. Everyone thought that the psychics were exaggerating, or simply making the whole thing up. So the psychics had some prisoners brought to the Court, and – right in front of the royal throne – did that to them.” She didn’t need to specify what she meant by ‘that’. “Everyone saw the light of reason, in fact, everything, vanish from their eyes. When the chains were removed from their wrists and ankles, they just stood there. The psychics told the guards to put weapons in their hands, and they still just stood there, as though they’d never held a sword or a musket before.”
“How do you know all this?” one of the Council asked.
“I’ll come to that. The point is that at that moment, everyone realised we’d won the war. The only thing to be decided was exactly how overwhelming a victory we should have.
“The King, and a good part of the Court, wanted a total extermination of your people. Everyone, man, woman and child. The psychics said they could do it, too. But there were some people who objected. Among them were the royal priests, who said that you, too, were godly creations, and it would be a sin to wipe you all out. And then there were the business people, who said that they would miss out on profits if they could no longer trade with you, which would also mean that the kingdom's tax revenues would suffer. And then there were...others...who protested, not on religious or commercial grounds, but simply in outrage and horror that a Weapon like this should ever even be considered for use.
“So, finally, they reached a compromise. The psychics would destroy the minds of all of your males who were capable of bearing arms – that is, anyone who wasn’t a very young child, or a very old man. Eventually, the children would grow up, and your race would be able to continue. But that would be in the distant future, and by then we would be much stronger and be able to deal with any threat that arose. And so,” she said, “it was done.”
There was a long pause. Jeris looked around them, from face to face, and walked up to the Kw’an in her big chair.
“You want to know who I am,” she said. “So I will tell you. My name is Jeris. Princess Jeris. I am the only daughter of the King of our people. You want to know how I knew what happened in the Court. I knew because I was in the Court when the prisoners had their minds destroyed.” She knelt on the floor before the Kw’an. “I begged on my knees in front of the throne for your people to be spared. The King could not refuse me altogether, for I am the blood in his veins, the beating of his heart, the singing of breath in his lungs. He could not refuse me, but he did not spare you either, as you have seen. I could not succeed in saving your people, but I did what I could.
“Only, of course, I knew it was not enough. And so I decided what I had to do. I had to come here to speak to you. So I came here in secret, leaving clues that I had gone quite another way. They will not look for me here.”
“What do you want?” the Kw’an whispered. Her lips were white.
“We may have won the war,” Jeris said, “but we have sown seeds of hate so deep that we will never root them out. On my way here, I was even attacked by a boy who was maybe four or five years old.” She pointed to the black splotch of dried blood on her thigh. “That boy, if he lives, will grow up still filled with hate for my people, and who can blame him?” She swept her arm around. “Your entire people, a whole nation, reduced to women trying to feed and clothe and take care of their men, who have not even the minds of newborn babies any longer; and on top of that to grow food, take care of the children, repair your buildings and roads and bridges, and somehow stay alive – why should they not hate us? How could they not? And when you have become strong enough again, will you not seek revenge?” She paused a moment. “And when you do, my people will wipe you out. There will be no mercy then.
“So I have come here to offer you an alternative. You can take your revenge, right now. Take me out of this building, to the street outside, and do to me what you will. Call your people, those who can come, here, and let them watch while you kill me, in whatever way you see fit. Only make sure that whatever you do to me will be enough to reduce your people’s hatred towards mine.” She smiled a little. “It will be revenge, too, because, as I said, I am the one my father loves more than anything else on earth, and I am his only heir.”
The silence in the chamber was so great that Jeris could barely hear them breathing.
“Well?” she asked. “I am offering you life – take my life and ensure your people’s survival.”
The silence stretched out further. She looked around them again.
“Your people’s survival,” she repeated. “Isn’t that what you want?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016