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The Golden Shrine
By Harry Turtledove
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
Spring on the Bizogot steppe came late, and grudgingly. The Breath of God blew down from the Glacier and over the frozen plain long after southern breezes began melting snow and bringing green back to the Raumsdalian Empire. At last, though, as the sun stayed longer in the sky day by day, the weather north of the tree line began to change, too.
Even down in the Empire, Count Hamnet Thyssen reckoned spring a minor miracle. Up on the Bizogot steppe, the miracle seemed not so minor; spring was harder won here. All the same, Hamnet had a bigger miracle to celebrate on this bright, mild, blue-skied, sunny day. He and his friends had lived through the winter.
"And I tell you," he remarked to Ulric Skakki, "I wouldn't have given a counterfeit copper for our chances when we set out last fall."
"Why not, Your Grace?" With his auburn hair and foxy features, Ulric could don the mask of innocence more readily than Count Hamnet, who was large and dark and somewhere between stolid and dour. "Just because it was a toss-up whether our side wanted us dead more than the enemy did?"
"That will do for a start," Hamnet answered, which made Ulric laugh as merrily as if he were joking.
"What do you say?" Marcovefa asked. The shaman from the cannibal tribe that lived atop the Glacier looked like a Bizogot: she was large and blond and robust. The language her folk used sprang from the Bizogot speech, but from a strange, distant dialect. And her people had been isolated for centuries from the clans who roamed the steppe. She was learning their speech as she was learning Raumsdalian — learning them both as foreign tongues.
Hamnet Thyssen explained in slow, simple words, partly in Raumsdalian and partly in the Bizogot language. He wished the Empire were doing more to fight the Rulers, the mammoth-riding invaders who'd swarmed through the Gap after the Glacier melted in two. The stocky, swarthy, curly-bearded invaders made ferocious fighting men and even more fearsome wizards.
Everyone thought so except Marcovefa. Her own powers equaled or exceeded those of the Rulers' sorcerers. Hamnet often wondered why that should be so. His best guess was that the scattered folk who dwelt up on the Glacier did without so many material things. They had no crops. They knew nothing of wood. They knew no animals larger than foxes. They couldn't work metal — even stone was sometimes hard for them to come by.
No wonder, then, that their magical skills were strong. They had to have something going for them up there in the perpetual cold and the perpetually thin air. Thus wizardry flourished alongside desperate poverty. So it seemed to him, anyhow. Marcovefa didn't think of herself or the folk among whom she'd grown up as poor. But then, she'd had no standard of comparison till she came down to the Bizogot steppe with Hamnet and his comrades the summer before.
She laughed at his worries now. "It will be as it is, that's all," she said. "All we can do is try to make it turn out the way we want it to."
"Well, yes," Hamnet said. "I don't think of that as all."
Marcovefa laughed again, louder this time. "But it is. Soon enough, nothing will matter any more, because we will be dead."
She made Ulric Skakki laugh, too, on a different note. "Later, I hope — not sooner," he said. "I don't plan on dying for quite a while yet."
"No, eh?" Hamnet said. "Why did you come up to the steppe again, in that case?"
"Maybe I'm a fool," Ulric said. He was a great many things: scout, raider, thief, assassin. Hamnet Thyssen had never made the mistake of reckoning him a fool. Other mistakes, certainly. That one? No — he wasn't such a big fool, or that particular kind of fool, himself. Then Ulric aimed a wry smile at him. "Or maybe you have such pretty eyes, I couldn't resist."
Count Hamnet snorted. He took his pleasure — and, too often, his pain — from women. So did Ulric Skakki. Hamnet had never thought pretending otherwise was funny. Ulric did.
"What are you going on about?" Trasamund rumbled. He was the very image of a Bizogot jarl, a clan chief. He was a big man, bigger than Hamnet. He had a hero's muscles, a hero's appetite for strong drink and willing women, a hero's courage. Strong sun and chill winds had carved harsh lines that gave dignity to his bluffly handsome features.
He was, these days, a jarl almost without a clan. The Three Tusk Bizogots lived close by the Glacier. Trasamund was one of the first men through it, one of the first to begin exploring lands cut off by ice for thousands of years.
And the Rulers had fallen on his clan first when they swarmed into the lands on this side of the Glacier. Trasamund had been down in the Empire then. The only thing he could have done had he been among his clansmen was die with them. He knew that, but blamed himself anyhow.
"I was just telling Count Hamnet how beautiful he was, and he was getting all embarrassed about it," Ulric said archly.
"If I didn't know the two of you ..." Trasamund let his voice trail away. Hamnet knew what he wasn't saying. The Bizogots scorned men who lay with other men, which was putting it mildly. Trasamund didn't know what to make of men who lay with women but affected not to. No Bizogot seemed to have thought of that particular vice before. Hamnet sent Ulric a not particularly warm glance. He didn't want Trasamund thinking of him like that.
Grinning, Ulric blew him a kiss. So much for the not very warm glance. "If you were half as funny as you think you are, you'd be twice as funny as you really are," Hamnet said.
"And I'd still be funnier than you," Ulric said. Hamnet shook his head like a man bedev iled by bees. He was unlikely to need to worry about bees this far north. Soon enough, though, midges and flies and mosquitoes would spring to life in every pond and rill and puddle left by melting snow and ice. Everything on the Bizogot steppe burst with life in the springtime — including the pests. Ulric Skakki seemed to be trying his best to get himself included in their number.
More Bizogots rode up from the southwest to take over the watch. Hamnet Thyssen was glad enough to head back to camp. He made a point of talking with Marcovefa and Trasamund, and of ignoring Ulric. The adventurer noticed. He laughed at Hamnet, who ignored him harder than ever. Ulric Skakki kept right on laughing. Hamnet kept right on fuming.
"If you let him bother you, he wins, you know," Marcovefa said.
"I suppose," Hamnet answered. "But if I don't let him bother me, that says I shouldn't have been bothered to begin with, and he wins anyhow. So what am I supposed to do?"
"You could kill him." Marcovefa wasn't joking. The Bizogots brawled at any excuse or none. Her own clan, like the others scattered over the top of the Glacier, had grown more ruthless than the folk from whom they were descended. They'd had to; life up there gave them even less margin for error than the ordinary Bizogots had. To Marcovefa, the frozen steppe was a land of riches and abundance. If that didn't say how desperately impoverished her folk were, nothing could.
All the same, Hamnet shook his head. "We need him. And —" He broke off, one word too late.
"And what?" Marcovefa asked. Of course she noticed. She wasn't just a shaman. She was an uncommonly observant woman.
Hamnet's cheeks heated. When he answered, he spoke in a low voice, because he didn't want Ulric to hear. But, however reluctantly, he spoke the truth: "And he'd be more likely to kill me, curse it." He was a formidable warrior. He was sure he could beat Trasamund, even if the Bizogot was bigger and stronger than he was — Trasamund had more courage than he knew what to do with, but less technique than he needed. Ulric Skakki was no braver than he had to be, but he coupled a wildcat's speed and grace with more skill in fighting with weapons or without them than anyone else Hamnet had ever known.
"If you quarrel, I could magic him." Marcovefa paused. "I think I could. He's a strange one, no doubt about it."
Had she ever seemed doubtful about her own spells before? If she had, Hamnet Thyssen couldn't remember when. She mocked the sorcery she found down here below the Glacier, both that of Bizogot shamans and that of Raumsdalian wizards. She even mocked the Rulers' sorcery, which far outdid anything either Bizogots or Raumsdalians could manage. If she wasn't sure her spells would bite Ulric ...
"How is he different from the rest of us?" Hamnet asked.
Marcovefa shrugged. "He's slipperier than anyone else I've ever seen. He might find a way to slide out from under any charm I set on him."
"Ah." Hamnet thought it over, then nodded. "I can see that. Sounds like Ulric, all right ..."
Tents made from the tanned hides of woolly mammoths straggled across the plain. Bizogot camps were disorderly affairs — this one, put together by survivors from several shattered clans, more so than most. Dogs not far removed from wolves ran at Hamnet and the other newcomers. They barked and snarled and growled, but didn't quite attack.
"Miserable beasts." Marcovefa didn't like dogs. There were none up on the Glacier. Her folk tamed voles and hares so they could have a more reliable food supply, but that was as far as they went along those lines. She asked, "Why keep them around, anyway?"
"They work. They guard," Hamnet said. Two dogs tripped over each other's feet. They both went sprawling. He added, "They give us something to laugh at."
"I suppose so." But Marcovefa didn't seem convinced. She pointed to the running pack of boys and girls who followed the dogs. "Isn't that why people have children?"
"One reason, I suppose." Hamnet Thyssen had no children he knew of. A lot of things might have been different if he had.
"Have you got anything for us?" one of the boys yelled. He held out a grimy hand for whatever he could scrounge. Bizogots scrounged without shame, wherever and whenever they could. Where they couldn't scrounge, they often stole.
"Don't give him anything." The girl who spoke used a dialect different from the boy's. They came from separate clans, and never would have joined together if the Rulers hadn't spread disaster across the Bizogot steppe. She added, "He's nothing but a miserable nosepicker anyway."
"Liar!" the boy shouted, and pitched into her. They were at an age where size mattered more than gender, and she had half a head on him. He might have been bold, but he was soon down on the ground and snuffling. By the way his nose ran, he hadn't picked it any time lately.
"Serves him right for being stupid," Marcovefa said.
"Yes, but ..." Hamnet raised his voice: "Enough! Enough, by God!" He yelled loud enough to make the girl stop. She eyed him in surprise. "Enough," he said once more. "We're all one clan here, or we might as well be. You made him sorry for jumping you — fair enough. But don't humiliate him. Save that for our real enemies — the Rulers."
"Who are you, to talk about all of us being one clan?" the girl demanded. "You aren't even a Bizogot." You aren't even a human being — she didn't say it, but it was what she really meant.
"So what?" Hamnet Thyssen returned. "The way it looks to me, there are only two clans left: the Rulers, and everyone who hates them. Which side are you on?"
She thought about that. Then, roughly, she pushed the boy away from her. "If I get the chance to kill the Rulers, I will. If anyone says anything different, I'll kill him." She couldn't have been more than eleven, but she plainly meant every word.
"Good enough." Hamnet pulled a chunk of smoked musk-ox meat from his pocket and tossed it to her. She caught it, stuck it in her mouth, and began to chew. Bizogots needed strong teeth; the dried meat was almost as tough as wood.
Liv and Audun Gilli and a captive from the Rulers came out of a nearby tent. Liv nodded to Hamnet. "By the racket the dogs made, I thought it might be you," she said.
"If it's not me, it's an attack, and that would be worse," Hamnet answered.
Liv nodded. She was a striking woman, with proud cheekbones, blue, blue eyes, and golden hair unfortunately hacked off short. It was also dirty and greasy, as Bizogot hair commonly was. (So was Hamnet's. Washing during the winter on the frozen steppe was asking for chest fever.) She'd been the shaman of the Three Tusk clan till the Rulers smashed it.
She'd also been Hamnet Thyssen's woman till she decided she liked Audun better. Maybe like called to like; Audun was a wizard, even if one with an unfortunate fondness for guzzling everything he could find. Or maybe that had nothing to do with it. Couples came together. Too often, they also came apart.
Hamnet could look at her and deal with her without wanting to kill her or to kill himself. He could even deal with Audun Gilli without wanting to kill him ... most of the time. All that struck him as very strange, if not downright marvelous. When Gudrid played him false and left him, he'd lingered — wallowed — in a trough of misery for years.
But Liv hadn't played him false. She'd only shifted her affections. Amazing, the difference that made. Liv didn't torment him with bygone days that could never come again, either. Hamnet wondered how it was that she came from the barbarous Bizogots while Gudrid was an allegedly civilized Raumsdalian.
Of course, civilization had its sophisticated pleasures, elaborate revenge among them. Why Gudrid thought she needed elaborate revenge on Hamnet ... one would have to ask her. Since she was hundreds of miles to the south, all comfortable in Nidaros, he couldn't very well do that — and he didn't want to, anyhow.
Marcovefa pointed to the captive. "I see you, Dashru," she said.
Dashru nodded. "I am seen," he answered unhappily. He spoke the Bizogots' language with a thick accent and bad grammar. He was shorter than most Bizogots, but wider through the shoulders. His hair and beard were black and curly, his eyes polished jet, his nose a proud scimitar.
That was the only pride he had left. Rulers who had the bad luck or lack of fortitude to fall into enemy hands were dead to their own folk forever after. They were dead in spirit, too, after suffering such a disgrace. Some slew themselves when they found the chance. Others, like Dashru, lived on, but not happily. Never happily.
"Teach us more of your language," Hamnet said.
Dashru sighed and nodded again. "I do that. You not learn well, though."
"We try," Hamnet said. "You don't learn the Bizogots' tongue easily, either."
"Grunting of deer. Squawking of geese," Dashru said disdainfully.
"We think the same of your speech," Hamnet told him. Dashru made a horrible face, as if he'd smelled something nasty.
The trouble was, the Bizogot language and Raumsdalian on the one hand and the Rulers' tongue on the other were as different as chalk and tobacco. Bizogots and Raumsdalians spoke related languages. The vocabulary wasn't the same, but here and there words in the one tongue sounded something like those in the other. The Bizogots had more complicated noun declensions than people in the Empire used, while Raumsdalian had a battery of verb tenses the mammoth-herders lacked. But the basic principles underlying both languages were similar.
All the words in the Rulers' language were different. That was bad enough, but not unexpected: why believe a language that had grown up beyond the Glacier would have familiar vocabulary? The grammar, though ... Whoever put together the grammar in the Rulers' language had to be twisted. So Hamnet Thyssen thought, anyhow. He knew Dashru felt the same way about the Bizogot speech, but he didn't care.
When the Rulers talked to one another, they used a word order Hamnet found perverse. They slapped pieces of words together to make bigger, more complicated ones. They used particles to show how the pieces fit together. Why anyone would want to talk like that, Hamnet had no idea. But the invaders found it as natural as he found Raumsdalian.
Dashru worked his way through a lesson on numbers. That was one more thing that drove Hamnet crazy. For one of something, the number and the thing it described were singular, and in the subjective case. For two, three, or four of something, the number and what it described were singular — why? — and in the possessive case. For five and above, they were plural and in the possessive case.
Excerpted from The Golden Shrine by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 2009 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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