“Tell us the story of the Hruang, Grandmama!”
The boy’s plea made Ciannait smile. Her great-grandchildren never seemed to tire of her stories, and at every meal they asked for a favorite. Sometimes she was able to remember a new tale for them, or even to create one out of fragmented memories of the tales told to her by her own grandmother.
“The Hruang? That beast that was captured and brought into the marketplace when I was younger than Foy?” Ciannait grinned at the children, then wet a corner of her apron and wiped Foy’s face. “I don’t think you washed up properly before breakfast, young man. Did you even bathe last night?”
The eight year old boy ducked his head. “I did, but the water wasn’t wet enough to get all of the dirt off,” the child explained.
Ciannait laughed. “Minna, the boy says water isn’t wet enough to clean him,” she said to her granddaughter, who set a bowl of warm cereal on the table.
“It may not be, Grandmama. I think he paints himself with grime every day.”
“He doesn’t paint himself with it, but he does roll around in it,” remarked Nagge, Foy’s ten year old sister. She reached for the ladle and filled both her bowl and her brother’s, then sat down at the table.
Foy grinned. He picked up his spoon and began eating with enthusiasm.
Ciannait filled her own bowl, and one for Minna. Minna came back to the table with a pot of tea, pouring for all four.
“I’m going to the orchard today to help Ben,” said Minna. “Children, you’re to help Grandmama here at home after your lessons.”
“How is Hanh?” Ciannait asked. “Is she getting any better?”
“No,” answered Minna. “And Zocha won’t say so to either Ben or Hanh, but she’s completely stymied. She thinks perhaps the illness is in Hanh’s mind more than in her body.”
“An illness of the spirit,” nodded Ciannait. “ It’s rare, but not unknown.”
“What happens when your spirit gets ill?” asked Nagge.
“You die!” yelled Foy.
Nagge rolled her eyes. “No, you don’t, silly. You only die when your body dies, not when you have a spirit sickness.”
“I thought you didn’t know what happened when a spirit got ill,” her mother teased. “Didn’t you just this instant ask what happens?”
“Well, I know enough to know your body doesn’t die. What does happen?”
“Spirit sickness is very serious,” answered Ciannait. “The person with spirit sickness wants to die, but cannot. It makes the people who love her very unhappy, too.”
“Can they catch the spirit sickness?” asked the girl.
“No, child. Spirit sickness is rare. It isn’t like a cold or the seasonal ills. It happens when the spirit and the body become separate,” her great-grandmother explained.
Nagge wrinkled her nose, thinking. How does a spirit separate from a body?”
“When you die!” Foy made a choking sound and pretended to fall off his stool.
His sister rolled her eyes. “Really, Grandmama, how does it happen?”
“No one is quite sure. There used to be healers who could call the spirits back to the living bodies they had left, but anyone with that knowledge is gone now.”
“When a spirit leaves a person’s body, what happens?”
“The person gets sick, and sometimes cannot even move or talk. It depends upon how close the spirit lingers.”
“Can you see a spirit when it leaves the body?”
“You have more questions than appetite this morning, Nagge! Eat your cereal. You have lessons today and you’ll be learning about the orchard plants.” Old Ciannait rose from the table. Over her shoulder, she admonished the children,”Eat well, because you’ll get hungry talking about the food plants of the farms.”
The children grinned at each other, knowing that their grandmother would make the lesson fun.
* * * * *
After their lessons, the children were released to play. Their great-grandmother’s only requirement was that they bring back one piece of fresh produce from the market for each of the four people in their home, and that each had to be different. They were told to talk to the market vendors about each fruit or vegetable, and to report to her what the vendor said about it.
The children raced each other to the open market near the great wall that surrounded the city. In the shade of the north wall farmers had stalls from which they distributed their produce. Crafters such as the potters, weavers, and basket makers also maintained stalls.
Their first stop was for a peach. Both children loved the sweet, juicy fruits and even when they had not been assigned the chore, in the warm months they might find their way to Momo’s stall where he sweetest, juiciest peaches sat waiting for people to claim them.
Momo’s stall was closed when they arrived, and the bent old woman was nowhere to be seen. The stalls on either side of hers were doing a brisk business, though. Neither vendor had seen Momo and both were too busy to talk to a pair of children. Nagge and Foy visited several other stalls. Knowing that Ciannait would expect them to bring home four completely different items, they visited the root seller, the bean vendor, and the squash seller. The children were determined not to go home without peaches, and asked after old Momo at every stall. No one had seen the old lady.
“I think we should go to her house and check on her,” Nagge said after they had exhausted their search of the market for knowledge of the peach vendor.
“She’s probably in the orchard with Ben,” Foy said. He was unconcerned about Momo herself, but his mouth watered for the sweet peaches. “Maybe Mama will bring home peaches today, since she’s helping Ben, too.”
“Maybe.” Nagge’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think Momo goes to the orchard much anymore.”
Foy shrugged. “Then let’s go check on her. You want to, and you’ll keep talking about it until we do.”
Nagge grinned. “Yes, I will,” she admitted.
Momo’s apartment was east of the marketplace, down a wide street that at night was lined with the barrows of the farmers. The walls of the homes were as white as the wall that surrounded the city itself, and the staggered rooftops of the buildings rose and fell with no perceivable rhythm. Each rooftop was planted with a garden, a place for the inhabitants within to grow herbs and a few vegetables for quick harvest for their dinner tables.
Interspersed among the buildings were slim towers, some narrower than a man’s shoulders, and some with more that one peak. The towers were made of the same mud-covered stone as the walls of the dwellings, but looked like the weathered remains of brittle, leafless trees, resting for the winter even against the blue skies.
The children made their way across the city’s north side, stopping to speak to the adults who greeted them. They raced each other the last few steps to the old peach seller’s door, but the old woman’s home was shuttered and the children’s calls went unanswered.
“She must have gone to the orchard,” Foy proclaimed.
“Momo hasn’t been to the orchard this year at all,” objected Nagge.
“Where else would she be?”
“How should I know? Maybe she’s gone to visit a friend. Maybe she’s just sleeping.”
“Sleeping? In the middle of the day?” The notion of a nap was completely alien to the boy. Even if Momo were sleeping, it seemed only logical to his eight year old brain that their calls would summon her since their cries always got the attention of Grandmama, who was older than Momo. The fact that old Momo might not have Ciannait’s health would never have occurred to him.
“I think perhaps we should check on her.” Nagge’s troubled expression arrested Foy’s attention.
“You think she might really be sick?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
The pair of them looked at Momo’s door, this time with a little trepidation.
“So, open it,” urged Foy.
“Let’s call her again.” They called. Still there was no answer.
Nagge reached out and touched the door. Just as she put her hand on the handle, Momo’s voice sounded from within.
“Here, now, what’s all the racket about?” The old woman sounded gruff and hoarse. She pulled open the door and blinked in the sunlight at the two children on her stoop.”Nagge? What are you and Foy doing here? Come in, come in.” Momo left the door open and without waiting for an answer turned and shuffled back into the dark interior of her home.
The children exchanged a look, then followed.
“We looked for you in the market. We wanted peaches.” Nagge told her. Foy looked around the apartment, obviously hoping to spot unclaimed peaches lying around loose, waiting to be given to him.
“You’ll not find me at the market today,” muttered Momo. “Nor are you going to find me there tomorrow. Or ever again.”
The children looked aghast at each other. “Never again? Why not? Aren’t there any more peaches?” Foy’s high voice wavered with momentary panic.
“Of course there are peaches, silly,” Nagge said quickly. “But, Momo, why aren’t you going to be in the market?”
The old lady snorted. “Ben says he wants Hanh to take over those duties. Not that she’s likely to get her lazy backside out of bed long enough to set the peaches out for anyone to see.”
“If Hanh’s going to be in the market, what will you do?” Nagge liked visiting with Momo, and was glad the old lady was there to give children extra fruit.
“I don’t yet know. I may help with tutoring or with the creche. I may just stay here in my apartment and enjoy my peaceful old age. Hanh won’t last long. She’ll sleep in the stall, if I’m any judge.” Momo sounded disgusted with her daughter in law.
“Mama went to the orchard to help Ben today,” Foy offered. “Do you have any extra peaches here?”
Momo raised an eyebrow, twisted her mouth into a grimace. “Ben better know what he friend he has in Minna,” she said. “Here, boy. There are always peaches in this house.” She handed both children a plump, firm fruit. “Now what are you doing here and not playing somewhere?”
“Grandmama told us to find four different foods from the market,” Nagge explained between bites of the juicy, sweet fruit. “We decided one of those ought to be a peach.”
“Oh? And how will she know you found a peach at all?”
“We’ll bring one back, of course,” said the little girl. Then Nagge’s eyes widened. “Only we’ve eaten our peaches!”
Momo laughed. “So you still need a peach for Ciannait, do you?” She grinned at the children’s solemn nods. “Fortunately for you I happen to have extras. Here.”
With grateful smiles the children accepted four more peaches and tucked them into the pack with the other food from the marketplace.
“Now get on with you,” scolded Momo, and watched the children cheerfully bounce out of the apartment and into the sunny street. “Mind you, don’t get caught by the Hruang on the way home!” she called after them with a smile.
Nagge and Foy had heard the stories of the Hruang. Their great-grandmother, who was one of the oldest people in the city behind the Wall, claimed she had seen one many years ago as a child herself. It was this story Foy had begged for at breakfast.
The beast had been captured by a band of hunters, and had died in the central marketplace from the stones thrown by angry old men and women who remembered the days of terror brought by the Hruang. When she told the story the old lady described the horrific claws and fangs of the beast, its bulging muscles and its naked flesh, but at the same time her tale evoked sympathy for the beast, captured and dying alone, injured, uncomforted, never itself having done wrong to its killers.
The frightening creatures had not come close to the walled city of Gaerwyn in generations. The wall was too intimidating to them, according to Ciannait. They would never bother, or dare, come close now. According to Minna, the children’s mother, such a beast was the stuff of legend, if it had ever roamed the world at all.
“Let’s go to the orchard,” Foy suggested, his mouth once again full of peach. No one was supposed to go outside Gaerwyn’s walls except on business, and children were never to go out without their parents. Since their mother was at the orchard, though, Foy and Nagge might be able talk the adults at the gate into allowing them to pass.
The rhythmic calls and movement of the people in the market provided the children with cover to slip out the city gate. The adults nearby were engaged with their bartering and bickering, their gossip and their industry. None paid attention to the two children. Nagge and Foy walked confidently near the opening in the great white wall.
They watched the dyemakers and the threadmakers, whose stalls were near the gate. Practiced in the art of sneaking out of the gate, the children asked questions and talked with the spinners who eventually told the children to move on and stop bothering them. The timing was perfect, as far as the children were concerned. They had seen the dyers toss their dyes into the boiling pot and knew that they would be shooed away from there, too, as they dyers were busy dipping the fabrics and threads into the steaming cauldrons.
As expected, the dyemakers shouted at the children to move back as they brought bolts of plain cloth over to the big pots for dipping in the hot dye. Nagge and Foy edged around the unguarded opening in the wall, sidestepped around its corner, and once out of sight of any adults ran to the great gray boulders that served as steps down to the valley where the orchards lay below the city.
The boulders had been left there by mysterious giants of the past, in a convenient formation that allowed relatively easy passage down the steep hillside to the fertile river valley below. Small, twisted trees grew amid the granite outcroppings. The stone was worn smooth by the passage of generations of feet. It was debated among the sagamen as to whether ancient chisels actually carved either the boulder steps or the base of the great wall that surrounded Gaerwyn.
“I am the leader of the Hruang, and I demand treasure!” cried Foy, making his child’s high voice deep to growl at his sister, standing on the boulder above his sister, glaring down at her with his small fists on his hips.
“The Hruang never demanded treasure,” objected Nagge, her status as the elder making her all-knowledgeable. “They just attacked and killed people.”
The boy stuck his chin out defiantly. “Well, this time I want treasure.”
Nagge grabbed a stick fallen from a nearby scrub tree and waved it at her brother. “Never! We will fight to the death!”
Foy saw a larger stick lying half on a granite step below in, to Nagge’s left and out of her sight. He made it to the weapon just as his older sister found her way to the side of the boulder where he had jumped.
They sparred with their weapons, shouting, growling, and happily banging their sticks. Foy had the better, stronger weapon. Nagge’s scrubby stick was older and drier, and a power thwack by Foy’s fresher weapon disarmed her. She shrieked.
“Admit defeat!” roared her little brother.
“You have defeated us, oh mighty Hruang!” cried the girl, crouching and covering her head with her arms.
“You must bring me treasure or I will take it myself from every home!”
“Will you attack our people if we give it to you?”
“No. I’ll take your things and go back to the other side of the mountains.”
“Sure,” said Nagge, standing slowly and assuming the persona of the Gaerwyn City Leader. “Drop your weapons and come close, and we will give you what you ask for. You have to promise to go away forever, though.”
“Give me good treasure and I won’t have to come back.” The small Hruang-boy’s avarice gleamed in his grin.
“Oh, we’ll give you the best. We promise. But you have to leave your weapons to come get it because we’re too afraid of you otherwise.”
The boy dropped the stick he brandished as a sword and took two steps closer to where his sister spread an imaginary pile of gifts. The girl bowed low to her brother, hiding her smile. “Please, honorable Hruang, take these gifts and leave us in peace!” she cried.
Foy swaggered closer, holding out the skirt of his tunic so it could be filled with riches. Nagge described each handful of leaves, each rock, each cluster of twigs as another impossibly desirable treasure. “A crown of silver, sparkling with precious gems. An ivory hunting horn, carved with scenes from legend. A bolt of the finest cloth, worked with threads of gold. An ancient scroll containing the secrets of the ages. Rare medicinal herbs. A vial of delicate perfume, guaranteed to make even Hruang smell pleasant.” Her litany of valuables brought a superior smile to her brother’s eyes as each item weighed more heavily in the stretching fabric of his outstretched pouch.
“Take more!” pleaded the eager treasure giver, piling the small boy’s Hruang arms full of leaves and twigs to represent the choicest of plunder.
When his skinny arms were full of the promised treasure, the Nagge leaped on Foy with a leafy branch, swatting at him with it. Howling, the boy dropped the leaves and twigs and leapt toward his own discarded branch.
“You cheated!” he yelled.
“I did not! I tricked you!” his older sister retorted gleefully, swatting him with a new branch she had surreptitiously retrieved during the treasure collection process and driving him backward along the rocky path.
The boy’s battle cry was another howl of indignation. Being older and stronger, his sister was able to drive him back further, laughing as she did so. The fierce duel of the branches brought them along the path to a flat place that overlooked the valley and led to another hill. Nagge stopped her attack long enough to catch her wind, and Foy ran up the path to the top of the crest beyond.
He stood upon it, throwing out his chest like the bravest hero of battles, bellowing his outraged superiority to the empty land beyond the whipping wind and throwing wide his skinny arms. His sister laughed and jumped to her place beside him.
She struck a mocking pose with one hand on her hip and a graceful arm outstretched to accept the adoring cheers of imaginary crowds. She bowed deeply. This time her brother laughed as well. The children jumped from the rocky crag to greet the throngs of their admirers.
In sudden panic they seized each other.
To be continued…