The Shanty

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​Maverick Mustang Manuscripts  

   

'THE HOLY RAIN'

Part 1

 Through the sea water waded the giants,

Called from the chill lands where they had languished

Into the warmth of Praudhurut’s springtime

Into her gentle forests and meadows,

There to do battle one with another.

Who dared to call them? Eze and Lāliesk,

Kings who had long waged war on each other,

Summoned the giants as allies in battle,

Strength to support their own weary fighters –

Thus, these men broke the gods’ firm decree.

Ages before, the sky’s lords had triumphed

Over the giants who sought to storm heaven.

Ikwa had cast them over the sea-straits.

Bruya had banned them ever from leaving.

Now the gods saw their old foes rampaging.

 

Ikwa gazed down and saw by the Padha

Giants crush people and trample on his trees.

Then the god raged, and no power could hold him.

Girded for fighting, Ikwa and Bume

Leapt down to earth from heaven’s high ramparts.

What did they find there? In the green valley

Teemed the black hosts of Lāliesk and Eze.

Over the ant-men stood the bright giants,

Smiting each other, terrible hirelings.

More sat on hilltops, munching fresh cattle.

Ikwa the Warlike sprang over mountains,

Unsheathed his sword, old slayer of giants,

Raised it agleam above the dark field

And swung it clean through the necks of the monsters.

Twenty-eight ears were cut by his sickle.

Fourteen of Eze’s, fourteen of Lāliesk’s

Fell at one blow to heaven’s defender.

Bume meanwhile on the hilltops was dancing,

Dopey heads tapping with his mace of iron.

Fourteen more giants fell to the Loyal.

Down crashed the bodies, shaking the mountains,

Crushing the fleeing fighters in hundreds.

Hundreds more still were drowned in the blood-tide.

Soldiers and monarchs perished together.

By this fell deed their violence was ended.

When all was over far-seeing Yenga

Bought down from heaven sacks made of cloud-stuff.

Together the brothers packed up the fallen,

Bore them away and piled them up high.

Now a new mountain stood as a warning.

 

Up in the sky the Great Gods debated.

Ikwa exclaimed, ‘These treacherous humans,

Friends of our foes are not fit to live now.

We should destroy them and breed a new people.’

Though Bume cheered him, others fell silent.

Yenga addressed him, ‘Great is your service,

Valiant brother, but you speak unjustly.

Because of a wicked few you would slaughter

Many good people.’ Said Lady Eskadh,

‘This is a cruel plan you are urging.’

Last of all spoke the Father of Heaven,

‘As you say, killing would be an outrage.

Already the guilty men have been punished.

I will take pity on weak mankind

And give them a living model to follow.’

 

Seated in heaven, Bruya examined

All the earth’s face from ocean to ocean.

In the warmth south stood golden-roofed cities,

Homes of the vicious. In the cool north lived

Tribesman in skins who preyed on their neighbours.

Who here was fit to serve as a model?

Bruya despaired; the universe trembled.

Then his eyes fell on Kūmi’s old forest,

Birthplaces of men but now a mere wasteland,

Where there still lived a shy, simple people.

Rutnul they called them, folk of the Mainland,

Scorned and pursued by conquering tribesman.

Here was his model. Though they were lowly

Hunters and farmers, he would exalt them

Over the kings of golden-roofed cities.

Bruya in heaven sent forth his eagles,

Bearing his word to Rutnul on earth.

Down the birds flew and perched on rooftops

Of the six clans their master had chosen.

These were the worthiest he had discovered.

‘Listen,’ they said, ‘good folk of the forest.

Our master Bruya wishes to bless you.

Leave field and hearth and follow us westward

Into the land men call Yakaveli.

Then he will grant you honour and power.’

Under an oak the chieftains debated.

‘No power will move me from my old country,’

Mumpike growled. Young Khādha reproached him,

‘Destiny calls us to a great future.

To stay is to rot.’ With that it was settled.

 

On the next day six hundred departed,

Tears in their eyes as they left their homes.

Little took they but the clothes they were wearing,

Bread, a few tools, some pigs and such cattle

As they possessed. The unknown awaited.

Slowly the migrants moved through the forests,

Following the streams, old tracks through the wasteland.

Wild beasts and enemies lurked in the darkness.

But high above the eagles of Bruya

Flew and looked down and led the folk onward.

Hungry and tired, they trudged ever further

Into a maze of valleys and hills.

After a long month faint-hearts among them

Muttered complaints against Khādha’s folly.

Then came the eagles’ cry, ‘Yakaveli’

From the high crags the envoys of Bruya

Spoke once again to earth’s noblest children,

‘Gather by clan and climb to the hilltops.

When evening comes, cast off all your clothes

And lie down to sleep there. So speaks our master.’

Khādha was right, Bruya had brought them

Safe to their goal, and now the chief’s people

Followed their god’s words, though they were strange ones.

In the night Bruya sent forth his daughters

Riding the west wind to Yakaveli.

All were asleep as they made their passage

Save a small boy, the night’s only witness.

He saw the shining steeds of the Langal

Course overhead and, shaking their manes,

Scatter a rain of light on the sleepers.

As they woke up and saw the light morning

It seemed yet another day on their journey,

But then they found themselves and their kinsfolk

Naked as babes and glowing like stars.

Truly a wonder had overcome them.

Then for the last time they saw the eagles

Land on the rocks and speak the god’s message,

‘You are the highest nation on earth now.

This is your blessing; this is your burden.

Don your new clothes and go with your leader.’

They watched the great birds soar into heaven

And, looking down, they found on the bushes

Fresh linen garments, gleaming like dew.

They put them on and stood on the hilltops,

Loftier than kings and brighter than giants.

 

Down the rough hillside walked bands of travellers,

Bearing their packs and driving their cattle

Into the pleasant vale of Wairniz

Where beasts could drink, and people could listen

To the fresh words of Ina’s son Khādha.

‘You kept your faith in Bruya’s protection

On the long trail,’ the young man said to them.

‘Now he has blessed you with a new standing

In the wide world. Henceforth you are Ulbs.

Reborn in the rain and Rutnul no longer.’

Khādha resumed, ‘I warn you, my kinsfolk,

We cannot stay in this barren country.

Let us press on along this swift river:

Soon we shall reach a broad, fertile valley

Where we can dwell. The powers go with us!’

 
Part II

 

Bright shone the travellers in the dark valley.

Sparks of the sun they seemed to the watchers

Hiding in bushes over the chasm.

Like constellations in a night sky

These bands of strangers moved through the shadow.

Who were the strangers? Even the wisest

On the black ridge could not comprehend them.

Could they be gods who walked on the earth

Or ancestors come to visit the living?

Mere human travellers caught in the sunlight?

Whoever the strangers, news of their coming

Ran on before them down the long valley.

Ere they approached the meeting of rivers

Watchers were waiting, keen to discover

What sort of beings entered their kingdom.

 

Fifteen long days the folk and their cattle

Walked on the winding bank of the Wairniz

Till the enclosing hills fell away

And they saw a wide green plain stretch before them.

Far off there gleamed a great silver river.

This was the paradise known to the ancients,

Truly surpassing Khādha’s foretelling!

And when they saw the wide fields of wheat there,

Green in the sun between the rich farmsteads,

They felt power and said, ‘This is ours now!’

Then they heard Khādha’s voice calling to them,

‘You may not take the land of another.

What are you, raiders such as pursued us

Back in old Kūmi? Come, let’s go onward.

Where the bear meets the us, there shall we settle.’

So Khādha turned away from the plain

And set his right foot upon an old trackway

Leading through bushes under the hill-flanks.

Knowing the foresight of their young chieftain,

Even the dour reluctantly followed.

When they had filed for three hours or longer

Through the dense bushes, suddenly something

Burst through the brush and stood on the pathway!

There was a great brown bear who flared at them

And wore a golden crown on his head.

Khādha’s retainers drew their bows quickly,

Ready to kill the threatening monster –

Before the chief spoke, the beast had faded

Into the air like a fleeting rainbow.

 

Then Khādha murmured, ‘That is the sign.’

Khādha and his men built up an altar

Out of the stones they found on the wayside.

On it they laid sticks cut up for burning.

Then the chief slew the best of the oxen

And cut off its head to give as an offering.

As the fire sent its perfume to heaven

All the six chieftains gathered around it,

Clasping each other’s hands in a circle.

‘O Lord above, we thank you for your sign

And for your favour!’ sang the six fathers.

‘Here shall your altar stand for all ages.

Oxhead we name it, heart of our people.’

They roasted the body of the huge victim

And cut up its flesh to feed the whole people.

They claimed the new land with great celebration.

 

Mothers and children, husbands and wives

Sat by the fires on that splendid evening,

Talking, embracing, singing together.

Some were already sleeping in skins

Or drowsing beneath the strange trees and bushes.

Out of those bushes came wiry fingers,

Curling around the necks of the drowsy,

Driving bronze daggers into the sleepers.

The scattered people, weary from marching,

Knew all too late a foe was upon them.

But little Khuvaz (who’d seen the Daughters)

Heard a strange rustling out in the darkness.

As he peered outward, he saw black figures

Stealing toward the camp where he lay.

Then Khuvaz screamed, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming!’

Right through the camps the warning cry sounded,

Calling each man to arms and resistance,

Calling all the women and children to safety.

Adha and Kava, two of Yur’s peasants,

Took axe and knife to serve them as weapons.

With their comrades they strode to the north camp

Where the small boy had seen the intruders

And now his kinsmen struggled against them.

Adha saw one big brute clad in leather

Drag an old woman up to the campfire.

Then Adha raged and no man could stop him.

He ran at this giant like a real madman,

Thrust his sharp knife (before he could parry)

Through the man’s jerkin, under his ribcage.

By the foe’s death the old wife was rescued.

Adha and Kava, little Chief Khādha

Fought the attackers hard at the north camp.

Their spirits burned for their wives and children.

Other men battled more of the strangers

Who had sprung up upon the south side.

East of the fires hills rose, black and silent,

And from the very rocks crept dark shadows,

Past the few watchmen who were not fighting,

Into the heart of Khādha’s encampment.

With bronze they slew the women and children.

Wild panic seized the Ulbs at that hour.

It seemed a savage god was upon them.

Even the brave fighters fled through the forest,

Crazily searching westward for safety.

On the black plain more enemies waited.

‘Sons of the Rain!’ the clear voice of Khādha

Rang through the night and cut through the shouting.

‘Look at the natives by our fires’ light.

They are but dozens while we are hundreds.

Wild dogs like these shall never defeat us!’

Khādha went dancing through the fierce raiders,

Sticking a dozen with his sharp rapier.

His good men followed up from the north camp,

Clearing a middle yard of intruders,

Bringing relief to men who were failing.

They formed a circle round the encampment.

Ikwa the Warlike breathed gently on them,

Steeling their hearts; and so, they persisted

All through the night against the foe’s charges.

Wounded and wives stayed safe in the circle.

When morning came the wearied defenders

Knew not if life or death lay before them,

But as they gazed out into the half-light

Their scattered kin came walking towards them.

‘Hail,’ they said. ‘You did good work last night.

Like a great bear that’s cornered by hunters

You fought the natives, striking down many.

We fled like cowards.’ ‘Cowards you might be,’

Khādha spoke softly, ‘but you bring good news.

Ivuke, Lātma search the woods swiftly.

Do you see natives hiding or waiting?’

‘All we remark are men dead or dying.

The living have turned back home to their farmsteads.’

Then the unwilling warriors rested.

 

They had much labour after the battle.

Wounds must be treated. Dead must be buried.

(Sixty were slaughtered out of six hundred.

Sixty attackers lay lifeless also.)

Folk must be found, and animals gathered.

While men worked, Khādha summoned the chieftains.

With their own hands the fathers and rulers

Built up two altars near to the first one.

They slew three oxen, heeding old custom,

And offered the heads to gods who had helped them.

Bruya who led them, Ikwa who saved them,

Yenga who taught them all that they knew,

All were exalted by the six fathers.

The day’s work over, how the Ulbs feasted!

They had regained the land through their blood.

 

Part III

 

Three drably clad men stole through the shadows,

Silently seeking something unknown.

Bows in their hands and on their backs arrows

But none of Tadhesk’s beasts was their quarry,

Nor did they track a man through the forest.

One of these fellows, leaving his comrades,

Strode on ahead and slipped from their vision.

They followed after on the rough pathway

But their low voices showed consternation.

Was he in trouble? Had he been taken?

Out of the briers they saw him coming,

Waving his arms as if he were crazy,

‘Ivuke, Sumbu, I’ve found a valley

Hidden from sight with streams of pure water.

This is a splendid home for Yur’s people!’

 

Thus, the clans sought new places to settle

In woods and valleys by the Broad River.

On the rude camps they built a fine village:

Behind a stockade rose ten well-thatched houses,

Khādha’s the greatest, fit for a monarch.

Under its wide porch sat the young father,

Log for a throne and children about him.

Bruka his wife was mending some trousers.

Then at the gate they heard a commotion:

Strangers were shouting loud at the guards.

Khādha arose and walked to the gateway

Where he encountered four well-dressed fellows

Demanding admittance from the rough watchmen

To the high presence of the big man.

‘I am the big man,’ Khādha said. ‘Follow!’

So little Khādha led the tall strangers

Over the roots and stumps to his house.

He sat on his throne and asked the men curtly,

‘What is your business, sirs, in my village?’

At first the strangers bowed and were silent.

Then one man spoke, a grey-bearded elder,

‘My name is Shan, my lord, and I have here

Shelesk the son of our famous ruler.

King Shetesk sent us, wishing that neighbours

Like our two peoples should live in concord.’

‘I bid you welcome, Malaya envoys.

Your peaceful message also I welcome.

But mere sweet words do not satisfy me.

How do I know you won’t attack us

Treacherously as you did before?’

‘Our kind wills peace,’ said Shan, ‘and he orders

Punishment on all subjects that break it.

His greatest longing would be a treaty

Settling that peace between our two peoples.

He offers prizes if you are willing.’

‘Prizes? What are we, beasts that need feeding

So, we don’t bite you?’ asked the proud chieftain.

‘Perish the thought! We offer you tokens

Of our new friendship. We have fine cattle

While your herds here are meagre and frail.

And out good sovereign has a young daughter.

Though still a child, she’s clever and pretty,

A suitable bride for one of your sons.’

‘What shall we give you for all your bounty?’

‘Simply a pledge of peace and a border.’

 

Khādha, though friendly, summoned the chieftains

For only they could settle the matter.

While he awaited his peers’ arrival

He bade his guests come into his mansion

Where Bruka served them mead and dried meat.

Two hours had passed, and nearing was evening

When all the chiefs foregathered in Oxhead.

They followed Khādha into an outhouse –

Out of the strange ambassadors’ hearing –

Where Khādha told them of Shan’s proposals.

Sange broke silence, ‘These are fair terms,

Though we, who are victors, might grow dependent

On those we vanquished.’ ‘True, but we have small

Choice on that score – unless we turn homeward.’

Khādha said quietly. Mumpike shivered.

With ancient pride the lords of old Kūmi

Entered the hall and greeted the envoys.

With them they drank and ate the scant rations

But the proud chiefs withheld their answer

Until the morning. So, they must tarry.

On that warm morning all of them gathered

In Khādha’s porch, the envoys and chieftains

Sange walked over, whispered to Shan

And set off a murmur among the people.

Silence returned when Khādha stepped forward.

‘We’ll take your offer, Malaya envoys,

We’ll take your cattle, grain and the rest

As reparation for our great losses,

We’ll vow you peace and fix a firm border

If you acknowledge this land is ours.’

‘This land is yours, we grant it quite freely,

A bagatelle to Shetesk of Rēni.

There is no hindrance holding up peace now.’

Said Shan the elder. Khādha, unspeaking,

Grasped Shan’s right hand. With that it was settled.

Once more the chieftains slaughtered three cattle,

Called on the gods to witness the treaty,

Fed all the people on that great day.

Shelesk and his men offered three whole sheep

Up to their gods, a waste of good mutton!

Last of all Khādha and the good envoys

Held three days’ games to mark the peace treaty.

Hunters of Kūmi, farmers of Rēni

Wrestled and ran and shot the bow keenly.

The Malayal gasped to see the Ulbs victors.

 

Shetesk’s surveyors marked out a border,

Dug as a ditch by Malaya soldiers.

Four leagues it stretched down south from the Wairniz,

Cutting the rich plain from the poor uplands,

Until it reached the brook Putamele.

Puta Brook bounded Khādha’s small kingdom

Eight leagues upstream; from that point a new ditch

Cut through thick forest back to the Wairniz,

New-founded Ulbanēdhu’s north border.

That land was theirs, but wholly surrounded.

On their bleak island clans from old Kūmi

Lived as they could on rabbit and berries.

Often, they begged Malaya farmers.

Where was the paradise they had been promised?

Where was the honour? Where was the power?

 

Mumpike sat at home in his hut

On his bed’s edge. Around him were gathered

His sons and daughters, daughters-in-law

And many grandchildren. Mumpike grumbled,

‘Here we are, starving in a strange country.

We could have lived like lords in our homeland

If that young crackpot hadn’t enticed us

Over the hills and into this thicket.

It wasn’t Heaven’s Lord who inspired him –

This is my guess – but Evra the Fallen!’

Granddaughter Murez asked the old chieftain,

‘What do we do now, grandfather dear?’

‘Strike camp and go home, my little piglet.’

All held their breath, but slowly a murmur

Grew and resounded through generations.

On a cool morning Mumpike’s people

Stood in their yard with bags of provisions,

Waiting for the final word of their leader.

In their midst stood a pole with an image

Of a raised hand, the emblem of peace.

Mumpike walked in front of his people.

‘We are alone,’ the old man said to them.

‘None will come with us, none of our kinsfolk,

But we are right to spurn their adventure.

Come, o my children, back to Kūmi!’

Young Widhutima, wounded at Oxhead,

Lifted the standard. People cheered hoarsely.

Mumpike, limping, marched through the gate

And into the wild. The ragged crowd followed

Into the forest, into the silence.

 

 

Part IV

 

Beautiful Kāma, daughter of Ina,

Put on the better of her two dresses,

Tied a fine girdle about her waist,

Combed out her hair as girls did in those days,

Left while her man and children were sleeping.

Kāma stepped proudly through the still village,

Came to the gate and greeted the watchmen.

‘Be well my lady!’ answered the watchman.

‘Up again early? Can’t you sleep well?’

Kāma just laughed and passed through the gateway.

Crossing the bare fields, she gained the dark forest.

She knew a secret way to the border.

And she strode onward, over the King’s Ditch,

Until she reached the old, dying chestnut

Where Gum, her native lover, was waiting.

 

Uproar broke out in Sange’s quiet village

When they heard tell their lady had vanished.

Peme her husband, Khādha her brother

Fetched the best trackers and gave them orders:

Find Kāma now and bring her back quickly.

Ivuke and his old comrade Lātma

Followed her traces through the wild forest.

Reaching the road that crossed Shetesk’s border.

They found her footprints in the dirt leading

Over the bridge to Malayaveli.

They walked on boldly to the old chestnut,

Where they saw bootmarks of a big fellow.

Still they tracked Kāma and her companion

To a near farm where fierce dogs were roaming.

They’d found their quarry but could not catch her.

 

Though at first glance life went on flowing

Calmly and smoothly like the Broad River,

Under the surface currents were twisting.

Khādha was seen conferring with Peme.

Lātma slipped to and fro through the forest.

Then one day Peme set off with Lātma

Bearing some skins to sell at the market.

They took the one good road through the forest,

Crossed the plank bridge but soon they departed

From the wide track that traders had trodden.

Lātma and Peme soon found Gum’s farmhouse,

Empty, it seemed, of human presence.

When they approached the gate of the farmyard

They cast down meat to lure the dogs off them.

Swiftly those dogs succumbed to the poison.

Peme and Lātma entered the cottage

Where they knew wanton Kāma was hiding.

When she saw Peme Kāma screamed sharply.

Quickly he seized her while trusty Lātma

Fastened a fox skin around her mouth.

Gagged with foul fur, her hands tied behind her,

Kāma was dragged across her lover’s farmyard.

Out of the house there stormed a young fellow,

Strong as a bear and glaring with anger.

He would protect his lord’s house and woman.

Gum’s trusty servant seized Peme’s arm

And threw the man over. Still clasping Kāma,

Lātma the agile drove his left fist

Against the man’s jaw and knocked him off balance.

Peme and Lātma held him and tied him.

Beautiful Kāma, daughter of Ina,

Dress smeared with mud and bound like a prisoner

Under the guard of Peme and Lātma,

Came to her village humbled and broken.

Neighbours and kinsfolk jeered the sinner.

That was the price clan honour demanded

In the proud days of Ulbic foundation.

In the house Peme gently released her

From all her bonds and spoke to her, weeping,

‘Kāma, my love, forgive me, forgive me!’

Kāma stood stiff and pale as a statue.

‘Forgive you?’ she whispered. ‘You too are cruel,

Cruel like all men of every nation.

Let me go, master, back to my children,

All that I have now.’ Peme sobbed deeply.

 

Under a pale, cold sky marched the peasants.

Clad in strange hooded jackets and bearing

Cudgels and staves, they made a small army.

Gum, bent on vengeance, went at their head

And after him came sons, servants and neighbours.

Hidden in forest, Sange’s men waited.

They were well armed and ready for ambush.

Lātma’s sixth sense had spied the band coming.

Sange had called men quickly to combat.

Now they heard faintly feet on the road.

‘We’ll teach those cowards such a good lesson!’

Cried Gum haughty. Boldly the farmer

And his companions made for the King’s Bridge.

Did they remember their monarch’s edict

Punishing subjects who broke the peace?

Swaggering at the head of his army,

Gum crossed the bridge and planted his right foot

On ground forbidden. Swift came from heaven

Fire to strike down the reckless invader,

Break the King’s Bridge and send the men tumbling.

Crack! went the thunder. ‘Hark! cried Lord Bruya

Out of high heaven. ‘This is the holy

Home of my people. Noone may enter

Unless in peace and unless with justice.

Heed, little men, the lesson I teach you.’

Down in the mud the little men cowered,

Stricken with fear at great Bruya’s anger.

On the foul bank sprawled Gum’s battered body.

Sange’s defenders listened, astounded,

As this disaster struck their opponents.

Up the steep bank the Malayal scrambled.

Some fled in panic back to their houses.

Others helped wounded clamber to safety.

Last of all came four men climbing slowly,

Bearing the corpse of Gum, their slain leader.

Sange’s men made their way through the forest,

Came to its edge and into the open.

There was the King’s Bridge smashed into firewood.

There in the ditch lay enemy weapons.

Sange’s men looked in wonder and hope.

Malaya wives and children were waiting

For the return of their men as heroes:

No heroes came to village and homestead

But frightened men, bedraggled and trembling,

Bearing news of a mighty god’s anger.

 

News reached King Shetesk in his far palace

And he desired to see what was passing.

Swiftly he called a party of guards

And his adviser Shan and departed.

Six days they rode towards Ulbanēdhu.

At length they came to Khādha’s fine village.

Old Shan announced his master’s arrival

And he politely asked the stern watchmen

If they might promptly speak to Chief Khādha.

Swiftly they led them into his presence.

Shetesk quizzed Khādha on the strange tidings,

Then summoned Sange and his companions.

He viewed the broken bridge and examined

Malaya folk who’d fled the disaster.

Shetesk stood musing for a few moments.

Then the king spoke, ‘I’ve heard all your stories

And I believe the truth of your telling.

Surely Gum’s men were plotting an outrage –

Stealing a wife away from her husband

Who is her master and protector.

Praise be to Bruya for his keen justice!

Nor do I take such wrongdoing lightly.

Let Gum’s estate be stripped from his heirs

And yielded up to the clan of Chief Sange.

Let six fine sheep be offered to Bruya.

So, do I honour my loyal allies

That I shall grant their chieftain a title

Fitting the courage of his proud people.

Let Khādha now be Count of Wairniz.

Let him take loving charge of his country.’

 

 

Part V

 

Clasped in the icy coils of a dragon

Lay the fair land our fathers had chosen.

Turned into seas of snow were the wide fields.

Trees in the woods stood leafless and hoary.

Skin of ice-covered Snake River Wairniz.

Caught in the very claws of the dragon

Were the five towns, our fathers’ foundations.

Behind their stockades no animals wandered.

Ghostly snow hid the ground and the houses.

Icicles, toothlike, hung from the eaves.

Chilled by the evil breath of the dragon,

Our fathers huddled with wives and children

Round living fires which warmed them and quickened.

‘Will the cold last for ever and ever?’

‘No, my son. Spring is coming,’ said Khādha.

As in the far-off forest of Kūmi,

So, in the new land by the Broad River

Eskadh brought warmth and slew the ice-dragons.

Freed from its skin of ice was the river,

Freed were the fields and freed were the people.

Freed were the men of Oxhead for labour:

With their new oxen, given by Shetesk,

They ploughed the ground they’d won around Oxhead.

They broke the soil and cleared roots and stones.

They gave rough words of thanks to Lord Ikwa.

Then Khādha rose and summoned his people,

Led them all out to the fields west of Oxhead,

Strode out alone upon the tilled earth.

Ina’s son threw his face up to the heaven,

Down to the earth and once more to heaven.

‘O Father Ikwa, lord of seedtime,

O’ Mother Kui, lady of acres,

Bless our first sowing in our new homeland,

Bless all our men who sow under heaven,

Bless all the seed we shall sow hereafter!’

He drew a handful of corn from his basket

And cast it widely, chanting and chanting

Like a fierce fighter. As he danced onward

Crowds of his people took up his chanting,

Victory singing over the winter.

Khādha began his people’s first sowing

And he began our high Feast of Springtide,

But his plain folk weren’t given to drinking,

Profligate eating, wanton behaviour.

They simply sang and danced under heaven.

 

In the skies martins now wheeled and twittered,

Joyful news bringing of life’s resurgence.

From the wide halls of Brudyiyudh’s palace

Over the clouds they’d come winging eastwards,

Bringing her blessings to human houses.

As they flew down, they passed seven riders,

Happy to see this sign of the season.

In their midst rode King Shetesk’s son Shelesk.

Grey-bearded Shan did follow behind him.

And about moved their minions and guards.

 

When they reached Oxhead, Ina’s son Khādha

Greeted his guests more warmly than ever,

Found them all stables, fed them like princes.

Past were those days of fear and suspicion

When the strange men had first reached the village.

Now Shan and Shelesk came there as brothers.

Brothers they would be if their proposal

Came out aright. And so, at the banquet

Shelesk leaned over to his friend Khādha,

Spoke to him almost in a low whisper.

‘Khādha,’ he said, ‘you know my lord father

Has a young daughter – he has begotten

So many of us on all his women!

Malbeke’s her name, our pretty jewel.

She’s nine years old, or would it be ten now?

Father proposes that she should marry

Your eldest boy, the dark one.’ ‘Tiskkhena.’

‘Wolf-slayer! Your folk truly are heroes

If they kill beasts at such a young age!

What do you say to Father’s suggestion?

He’ll give Malbeke much land and cattle.’

Khādha thought swiftly and made his answer,

‘WE made a pact a year ago, brother,

I thank the king for his new proposal.

By the gods I confirm the betrothal!’

The prince’s companions and the count’s household

Toasted in ale the newly matched couple.

Tiskkhena stood amid the commotion,

Dazed for a while at this sudden turning,

Now growing proud of what was becoming.

 

When morning came and all were at breakfast

Under the wide roof of Khādha’s mansion,

Shan said to him in a gentle manner,

‘Lord, I am glad that our noble peoples

Soon shall be tied together in wedlock.

However, we’ve more serious matters

Troubling our realm, I thought you should know.

Enemy tribes – the same as pursued you

When you were living in Kūmi mountains –

Come to our borders, harass the people.

We both should stand together against them

And, if the worst should come to the worst,

Your valiant men should serve with our soldiers.

They’d be the pride of King Shetesk’s army.

Surely, my lord, I have your agreement?’

‘Yes, Master Shan, you have my agreement

If it should come to such time of peril

For both our peoples … but I must summon

My brother-chieftains, for you’ll be needing

Their consent too. I cannot command them.’

 

Sange and Yur and Brilflir and Brulflir,

Aged and wise, the lords of old Kūmi,

Soon came to Khādha in his wide mansion,

Curious to learn the news Shan was bringing,

Curious to hear the envoy’s new proposals.

So, the man spoke. The chiefs listened gravely

To his reports of raids and destruction,

To his appeal to join the king’s army.

When he had finished his words of warning

They were united in their opinion.

‘You speak the truth: I say it in sorrow,’

Uttered Chief Sange. ‘Knowing those tribesman,

We must make common cause with your people,

Both good and evil.’ Khādha and Yur,

Brilflir and Brulflir wearily nodded.

 

Shan spoke again, ‘I thank you, my lords,

But I must – it grieves me – trouble you further.

In these dark times my king has commanded

That every village in his wide kingdom

Should yield up boys to train for his army.’

Brulflir growled deeply but Shan continued,

‘In times of peril our loyal allies

Also, must bear a share of the burden.

Thus, I propose that each of your brave clans

Offer five boys to train with the army.

So, do we honour our Ulbic allies

That we shall place their sons in the king’s guard,

High hope of every youngster in Reni.’

Brulflir barked out, ‘You’d send all our children

Off to the wars to face death and mayhem?’

Khādha spoke quietly, ‘Sir we are few,

Numbering just four hundred and fifty.

If our sons leave us, who’ll tend the cattle?

Who’ll plough the fields? Who’ll play in the forest?

We must reject the good king’s decree.’

Every man froze as if there had entered

A fearsome serpent. Then Shan spoke sweetly,

‘I beg your pardon. We hadn’t realised

What a great load it was we were asking

Your folk to bear, so few and so precious.

Now I propose that each of your five clans

Offer just two to train with our army.

I know I’m being hard on your people.’

‘We can accept this lesser demand,’

Said Khādha gravely. Once more they nodded.

 

 

Part VI

 

Out in fields a small crowd of people

Squabbled and talked and hugged one another.

This was no market, no merrymaking

But the sad day when ten of our children

Bade their goodbye to mother and father.

Tears filled the eyes of great-uncle Sange

When he beheld young Sangeyin clinging

Fast to his mother, slighted by many,

Yet her three children still adored Kāma.

He was the eldest, though just thirteen.

Finally came the time when the children

Sadly, must part from father and mother.

Shan summoned all those who must go with him,

Servants and guards and boys fresh-enlisted.

Kāma kissed Sangeyin for the last time.

He joined the other boys who were crowding

Round Master Shan the charming enchanter.

Next to him stood a man with a standard

Topped with the golden fish of the kings.

Sangeyin turned to see Kāma weeping.

Then that mixed crew set off for the King’s Bridge,

Soundly rebuilt from Shetesk’s rich coffers,

And found their horses stabled at Sange’s

Newly won farm. While Shelesk onward

Shan took the boys to camp at Skull Castle.

 

Though it was spring, and summer was coming,

Cloud in a blanket hung over Rēni.

Cool wind was blowing out of the west

And drizzle was driving through to the poor folk’s

Skin, the dejected people of Homeland.

Now at the market, now from the pedlar,

Now from the labourers toiling for Sange

They heard that troops were passing through northwards.

Dim in the distance sometimes they heard them

On the long road that ran by the River.

‘There go our sons,’ said some anxious parents

But another folk upbraided them sharply.

‘That can’t be so, for Shan the king’s spokesman

Told me himself they’d keep the boys safely

Out of harm’s way for two years of training.’

One day a stranger came into Yurta

(Home of Yur’s people), carrying trinkets,

Pieces of amber, things that the poor folk

Could not afford, but he carried also

News of the army Shetesk had gathered.

‘As I was passing south towards Esta

Yesterday morning, I saw a stunning

Sight on the green fields: men in their thousands

Drawn up in cohorts, clad in all colours.

They stretched, I swear it, to the horizon.

Each stood with spear and shield and bronze helmet

Like a grim statue. I turned aside, went

Down to the river; but shouts and trumpets

Heard in the distance told me that something

Was going on. The army was moving.

Later I met some curious people –

Traders like me, but some of them scoundrels,

Swindlers and harlots, lice of the army.

This bunch informed me that our lord Shetesk

Was waging war against the barbarians.

Those Pellavel who ravage our borders,

Led by wild Lupa, soon will be hammered

By the best men that Rēni can muster,

Shetesk’s own guard, the horsemen of Pan …’

‘Did you see boys there?’ asked a pale woman.

‘No madam. Fighting men from all districts

I saw at Esta, but they had brought no

Boys to the muster. I’ve heard the rumours

But I tell you the stories are groundless.

I saw the army with my own eyeballs!

But if you’re worried about your loved ones

I’ve something here that might calm your anguish.

Look at this necklace. Isn’t it pretty?

In the north ladies swear that this pendant

Brings them good fortune if they should rub it.’

‘Sir, while I welcome news of the battle

You are insulting me and my sisters

If you would sell us magical trinkets

In our distress. We’re poor and we’re foreign

But we’re not stupid as you are thinking.

Move on and take the news to our kinsfolk

Down south in Oxhead, Sangeta, Doghouse.

You might find them a little more willing.’

‘Good advice, madam,’ said the strange pedlar,

Shouldered his pack and set off for Oxhead.

 

When the man came to Oxhead and Doghouse

He found folk keen to hear his adventure,

Some even keen to buy of his jewels

As an adornment and a protection

In times of dullness and times of danger.

Life went on flowing in its new courses

And little told one day from another

But when a stranger came to the village,

Bearing fresh news of Shetesk’s campaign,

Or when a rumour swept through the country.

 

Khādha’s boy Ina and his friend Silsit

Went out to play one day in the forest.

Silsit, pursued by Ina the robber,

Ran far until he saw something gleaming,

Gleaming and moving down on the ground.

When he looked closely, he saw a wonder:

There was a brown toad wearing a golden

Crown on its head but painfully crawling,

For some wild beast had crewed off the toad’s front

Leg, though the wound appeared to be healing.

Curious Silsit picked up the creature,

Bore it with pride to his young friend Ina,

And the two boys ran home with the monster.

Silsit was teasing Ina’s poor sisters

When mother Irmez happened upon them.

‘What are you doing?’ cried Silsit’s mother.

‘What have you got there, you little rascal?’

‘I found this wounded toad in the forest.

I thought the girls might take it and heal it.

They’re kind to creatures,’ said Silsit slyly.

When Irmez saw the toad at close quarters

Her eyes grew wide and her mouth hung open.

‘Give me that toad. Oh Silsi, you’ve stumbled

On a dark secret that little children

Shouldn’t encounter, but the gods willed it.’

Leaving the children to their own confusion,

Irmez made haste to find cousin Khādha.

(All Ulbs were cousins!) He was at home

And straightaway she showed him Silsit’s crowned monster.

Khādha flinched sharply. Gravely he nodded.

‘You are right, Irmez. You’ve seen the meaning

Of this dark sign. The king will be wounded,

And I fear greatly I am the victim,

Not brother Shetesk who has great armies

For his defence and crushing his foes.

I shall face any enemy bravely

And I shall get my whole people ready

For what befalls us.’ ‘You are right Khādha.’

Said mother Irmez. ‘What a dark fate

A little toad brings us, but the gods willed it.’

Carrying still the animal sacred,

Irmez walked deeper into the forest

Till she had left the village behind her.

She licked the scabby stump of the creature,

Murmured a blessing, then she released it.

Khādha meanwhile was riding his donkey

Round all the districts of Ulbanēdhu,

Telling his people of the strange omen,

Ordering them to watch homes and borders,

Handing out weapons for the defence.

Brilflir rebuked him, ‘Dear brother Khādha,

You rush around and cause a commotion

Because of a foolish woman’s foreboding,

Not true intelligence of disaster?’

Khādha replied, ‘The gods tell me the truth.’

 

 

Part VII

 

Sia the sharp and Ina’s man Kauva

Stood by the gate that led into Oxhead.

They had been watching there in the burning

Sun for three hours and cursing Count Khādha

Who’d told them, ‘Friends, be especially watchful.

Sia said, ‘Khādha once was inspired

But he has let power go to his noodle.

Though the king’s army’s battering Lupa

Into the ground, our leader sees enemies

Everywhere, or so his witch tells him.

We have to follow his silly orders,

Stand in this heat when we should be dozing

In the cool shade. The poets will one day

Reckon us heroes, Sia and Kauva,

Men who defended their land from phantoms.’

‘Right, Sia. He’s not liked my old master.

Ina was straight. Knew what he was doing.

He didn’t flit round butterfly-fashion:

One foe today, another tomorrow!

Still, these are troubled times that we live in.’

Sia heard hoofbeats down on the highway,

Sharpened his eyes and saw a lone rider

Trotting uphill and visibly weary.

Horses were rare in days of the heroes

And their appearance presaged things weighty.

Sia and Kauva saw his blue raiment,

Mark of the high officials of Rēni.

As he drew closer, they saw the golden

Fish on his breast, the badge of the monarch.

‘Something is up,’ said Kauva to Sia.

Then the lone rider slowed and dismounted,

Led his fawn nag towards the two watchmen.

‘Halt! Who goes there?’ cried Kauva in challenge.

‘Kūm the king’s servant, friend of Count Khādha,

Coming to him with news of great moment.’

‘I know you sir,’ said Sia, eyes narrowed.

‘You came to Oxhead in Shelesk’s party

Three months ago. You didn’t stand out them

But now I know you. Welcome to Oxhead!

I shall conduct you to our Chief Khādha.’

Sharp Sia whistled for his replacement,

Led man and horse to Khādha’s big house,

Presented the envoy to his dear leader

Unctuously, while worthy Tiskkhena

Took the man’s horse to drink water with the donkeys.

 

Khādha stepped out, his yellow hair shining

Bright in the sun, and called to his village

Like a brass trumpet. ‘Come, o my kinsfolk!

Shetesk has sent a messenger to us.

Gather and hear his news of great moment!’

People of Oxhead came from all quarters,

Gathered round Kūm in afternoon heat.

Kūm stood beneath the eaves and addressed them,

‘My lord and my fellows, Shetesk has sent me

With happy news for all folk of Rēni.

Yesterday morning Shetesk’s great army

Met the wild bands of Lupa the Hairy

On grassy banks below Pitisitta

Hills, where a stream flows out of the forest.

I heard this news from soldiers who fought there.

When the wild warriors rushed to attack us,

Our general Pitiesk ordered the fearsome

Horsemen of Pan to charge them in flank

While other squadrons from the same nation

Rode to attack the rear of their army.

Infantry too, spurred on by bold Pitiesk,

Charged up the hill to face the wild braggarts.

Under assault from Rēninu weapons,

Pressed on all sides by Pitiesk’s tactics,

Those hairy heroes broke up and ran.

Every man did seek his own safety,

Swiftest among them was Lupa the savage,

Who gained the forest with a few loyal

Comrades of his, a resolute leader!

Evraprain slipped off after his master.

Those who remained were cut down in dozens

And those who fled our cavalry slaughtered.

Pitiesk ordered prayers of thanksgiving

For the wild hosts were utterly routed

With their foolhardy leader abandoned.

My lord and fellows, fold of the empire.

Celebrate victory with a vengeance!’

When Km had finished, people of Oxhead

Started a quiet cheer to begin with,

Growing in moments into a tumult.

Though they begged Kūm to stay in their village

Or to take word to their scattered kinsfolk

Out in the woods, he told them quite firmly,

‘I must ride onward, onward to Esta,

Bearing a true account of the battle.’

 

Bearing a true account of the battle,

Khādha rode onward, westward to Sange

On his old donkey, while the other fellows

Took the good news to Brilflir and Brulflir,

Yur and the lonely men of the forest.

Victory was a cause of rejoicing

For people deemed the danger was over

And their young sons would spend life in safety.

Some bought out jars of ale they’d been keeping,

Poured out a drink for all of their neighbours.

Others meanwhile gave loaves or the little

Cakes that we still exchange on our feast days,

Memory of a poor time but noble.

Sange, contesting his reputation,

Offered three pigs for slaughter and roasting.

From miles around they came to the meadows –

Sad places whence their sons had been taken –

And there they feasted long by the fireside,

Porridge and pork and rough ale of Rēni,

Till the warm sky grew light with the morning.

Kāma was sitting silent by Peme,

Peme was gazing into the fire,

As they had done for month upon month now.

Then the forlorn man lifted his hand,

Laid it upon the arm of his wife.

She did not flinch nor shrink from his touch

But turned her head to him, smiling so faintly.

If you had watched by flickering firelight

You could have missed this transient moment,

Unexplained change for Kāma and Peme.

 

Miles to the north in their lonely valley

Yur and his people also were feasting,

Feasting on bread and rough ale of Rēni.

Though they had found a home amid roses,

Fate had denied them wealth of their fellows.

Still the folk ate and drank in high spirits

And their stout watchmen watched at their fences

As Khādha said – and who was this coming

Through the dark night? Three angular figures,

Faces like whey and dressed in tatters.

They were not fighters fled from the battle.

They were not robbers; nor were they trappers

Plying their trade for family and nation,

Though they seemed Ulbs in dress and demeanour.

‘Halt! Who goes there?’ cried one of the watchmen.

‘Widhurez I am, Mumpike’s cousin,’

Said the gaunt stranger, sunken eyes staring.

‘Widhu my sister, son Widhutima,

Both have come with me through many trials,

Yet we still carry hope¹ in our hearts.’

‘Welcome back, kinsfolk,’ said the glad watchmen.

‘We’d thought you’d perished in the wild forest,

Murdered by thieves or dead for starvation,

But you’re still living!’ Into the village

Revenants walked to people’s amazement.

Kindly they shared their food with the hungry,

Listened to tales of hardship in Kūmi

And of the bitter choice to return

And of the murderous Pellave brigands.

The refugees slept the whole day that followed.

 

Widhu means ‘hope’.

 

 

Part VIII

 

‘Widhurez, Widhu and Widhutima,

You have no home now you have returned here,

Come with me, friends, and live in my village!

Lodge in my house, for you must recover

From wounds and hunger,’ said the Chief Khādha.

‘Thank you, my lord,’ Widhurez, fearful,

‘But we would go to where we were living

Last year before old Mumpike led us

Out of this “thicket” into the wild beasts’

Haunt, the deserted forest of Kūmi.

We would rebuild our huts and the weedy

Soil we would clear once more with our hoes.

We would build up new lives, a new village

On the sad ruins called Mumpiketa –

With your permission, lord, and your favour.’

‘You have my permission, friends, and my favour.

I will grant anything that you ask for:

Animals, seed, and if you desire it

I will send men to build your houses.

No “lord” am I but friend to the needy.’

 

One of those evenings Kāma was walking

Through the lush woods with Peme her husband,

Her hand in his. She said in a murmur,

‘This is the way I went then to meet him,

Following this old track to the border.

Thrones of the gods! I thought I was clever,

Clever and daring but I was foolish.’

Ina’s proud daughter sobbed and gazed downward.

Weak Peme put his strong arm around her.

‘There, there, my love,’ said Peme to Kāma.

 

Miles to the north in woods beyond Yurta

Two men were walking close by the Snake River.

‘What a fine day!’ said Kava with gladness

To his companion Ivuke who had,

To his displeasure, no time for talking.

Ivuke sharply whistled a warning

And his alarm was taken up swiftly

All through the land from Yurta to Doghouse

And Kava started out of his dreaming

And the barbarians hid in the shadows.

Now ‘foolish’ Khādha’s foresight was proven

For he had heeded that monstrous omen,

Readied a firm defence for his country.

Pellave scouts went back to their leader

With the bad news: the Ulbs were preparing.

Scorning all talk of flight to his homeland,

Evraprain cried, ‘There’s no turning back now!

If we must die, let us die like heroes!’

Then the wild man ran down to the river,

Leapt in the stream with many behind him.

When the band reached the shore of the Homeland

They barely stopped to shake off the water

But padded onward, wolves of the forest,

Keen on the trail of Yur’s lonely village –

But Khādha’s doughty men barred the way.

Evraprain, like a furious dragon,

Flew through the woods with dozens of dragons

Flying behind him, all bearing down on

Khādha the chief, his loyal retainers,

Who stood their ground with shield and with spear.

Khādha cried, ‘Help me, Yur’s men and Brulflir,

Come to the centre!’ but those barbarians

Flew still ahead like furious dragons.

Two of them ran, as if they were sightless,

Onto the spears of brave sons of Ina.

Deaths of their comrades could not deter them:

Waves of wild fighters rolled onto spear-points,

Broke on the rocky lines of the Ulbs.

Evraprain himself had at Chief Khādha

Who sharply raised his shield to defend him.

Evraprain’s weapon broke on the shield

Of our little hero and he responded

With his good spear of Rēninu making,

Thrusting it in the breast of the savage.

Thus, he deserved the thanks of the kingdom.

But at the very moment of glory

Khādha was struck and fell to the ground.

Driven by fury, one of the fighters

Swung his sharp axe at Evraprain’s killer,

Hewed off his arm, a terrible blow.

Ina’s man Kauva, known as dullard,

Thought fast and summoned Sia to help him.

Together the two men bore the sick hero

To mother Irmez and her companions

Who had made haste to see to the wounded.

Irmez herself – inspired by Lord Yenga –

Tied off his veins and treated the wound

With mouldy bread, honey, herbs from the forest,

And in the field his men did not falter.

They charged the foe with fury of dragons.

Some they cut down with good spears of Rēni.

Others they chased for miles through the forest

Back to the very bank of Snake River

Where two or three men, lest they be captured,

Flung themselves headlong into the torrent.

Never again did they walk on earth.

Frightened and tired and torn from their leader

Stood the last crowd of Pellave fighters,

Caught on the brink of Snake River Wairniz,

Caught behind Ulb and Malaya spear-points.

Suddenly one man threw down his weapons,

Called on the others in his strange language

All to surrender. With looks of sorrow

Slowly they cast down spears, daggers, axes,

Gave themselves up to grim-visaged victors.

Evraprain’s fellows surely expected

They would be treated as they did others

But their foes merely seized them and gently

Beat them and marched them back to the village,

Where they were watered and hurried onward.

On the long road that ran by the River

Prisoners marched, though weary and halting,

Driven by blows from Shetesk’s fine soldiers

Onward to barracks in Faskeduma

Where they’d be asked a few friendly questions.

When he came out of feverish torment,

Irmez told Khādha of his tribe’s triumph.

Khādha smiled broadly but he knew nothing

Of the great prize he’d won for the kingdom:

Lupa the Wild, disguised as a warrior.

 

When news reached Shetesk in his far palace

He jumped for joy to hear that wild Lupa,

His greatest foe was captured and broken.

On the king’s orders they built gallows

In the chief city, ready to greet him.

Now Shetesk was busy mending the damage

Done by the war, so he sent his servant

Shan to find out the facts of the battle.

When Shan was done, he went to sick Khādha:

‘Be well, my lord, the leader of heroes!

Your men cut down the boldest marauders,

Yes, and you caught the chief of the villains!

How can we honour you for your service?

May we grant you the prisoners as slaves?’

‘They’ve given us much trouble already.’

‘Let us discuss the sons whom you cherish.

We might let them return to their parents

Now that the power of Lupa is broken.’

‘Though their departure grieved us,’ said Khādha,

‘We count it an honour that they should serve you.’

‘Then my lord, how are we to reward you?

What prize do you request from the kingdom?’

Though the chief still lay wounded and weakened

Under Shan’s gaze, he drew like a giant,

Bright as the sun and tall as Lord Ikwa.

‘Master,’ he said, ‘one thing first and foremost

I do desire, the lands from my borders

Down to the River!’ Shan pondered and uttered,

‘Your wish is granted, Master of Toadland!’

Shan grasped his hand. With that it was settled





Part 1

 

Through the sea water waded the giants,

Called from the chill lands where they had languished

Into the warmth of Praudhurut’s springtime

Into her gentle forests and meadows,

There to do battle one with another.

Who dared to call them? Eze and Lāliesk,

Kings who had long waged war on each other,

Summoned the giants as allies in battle,

Strength to support their own weary fighters –

Thus, these men broke the gods’ firm decree.

Ages before, the sky’s lords had triumphed

Over the giants who sought to storm heaven.

Ikwa had cast them over the sea-straits.

Bruya had banned them ever from leaving.

Now the gods saw their old foes rampaging.

 

Ikwa gazed down and saw by the Padha

Giants crush people and trample on his trees.

Then the god raged, and no power could hold him.

Girded for fighting, Ikwa and Bume

Leapt down to earth from heaven’s high ramparts.

What did they find there? In the green valley

Teemed the black hosts of Lāliesk and Eze.

Over the ant-men stood the bright giants,

Smiting each other, terrible hirelings.

More sat on hilltops, munching fresh cattle.

Ikwa the Warlike sprang over mountains,

Unsheathed his sword, old slayer of giants,

Raised it agleam above the dark field

And swung it clean through the necks of the monsters.

Twenty-eight ears were cut by his sickle.

Fourteen of Eze’s, fourteen of Lāliesk’s

Fell at one blow to heaven’s defender.

Bume meanwhile on the hilltops was dancing,

Dopey heads tapping with his mace of iron.

Fourteen more giants fell to the Loyal.

Down crashed the bodies, shaking the mountains,

Crushing the fleeing fighters in hundreds.

Hundreds more still were drowned in the blood-tide.

Soldiers and monarchs perished together.

By this fell deed their violence was ended.

When all was over far-seeing Yenga

Bought down from heaven sacks made of cloud-stuff.

Together the brothers packed up the fallen,

Bore them away and piled them up high.

Now a new mountain stood as a warning.

 

Up in the sky the Great Gods debated.

Ikwa exclaimed, ‘These treacherous humans,

Friends of our foes are not fit to live now.

We should destroy them and breed a new people.’

Though Bume cheered him, others fell silent.

Yenga addressed him, ‘Great is your service,

Valiant brother, but you speak unjustly.

Because of a wicked few you would slaughter

Many good people.’ Said Lady Eskadh,

‘This is a cruel plan you are urging.’

Last of all spoke the Father of Heaven,

‘As you say, killing would be an outrage.

Already the guilty men have been punished.

I will take pity on weak mankind

And give them a living model to follow.’

 

Seated in heaven, Bruya examined

All the earth’s face from ocean to ocean.

In the warmth south stood golden-roofed cities,

Homes of the vicious. In the cool north lived

Tribesman in skins who preyed on their neighbours.

Who here was fit to serve as a model?

Bruya despaired; the universe trembled.

Then his eyes fell on Kūmi’s old forest,

Birthplaces of men but now a mere wasteland,

Where there still lived a shy, simple people.

Rutnul they called them, folk of the Mainland,

Scorned and pursued by conquering tribesman.

Here was his model. Though they were lowly

Hunters and farmers, he would exalt them

Over the kings of golden-roofed cities.

Bruya in heaven sent forth his eagles,

Bearing his word to Rutnul on earth.

Down the birds flew and perched on rooftops

Of the six clans their master had chosen.

These were the worthiest he had discovered.

‘Listen,’ they said, ‘good folk of the forest.

Our master Bruya wishes to bless you.

Leave field and hearth and follow us westward

Into the land men call Yakaveli.

Then he will grant you honour and power.’

Under an oak the chieftains debated.

‘No power will move me from my old country,’

Mumpike growled. Young Khādha reproached him,

‘Destiny calls us to a great future.

To stay is to rot.’ With that it was settled.

 

On the next day six hundred departed,

Tears in their eyes as they left their homes.

Little took they but the clothes they were wearing,

Bread, a few tools, some pigs and such cattle

As they possessed. The unknown awaited.

Slowly the migrants moved through the forests,

Following the streams, old tracks through the wasteland.

Wild beasts and enemies lurked in the darkness.

But high above the eagles of Bruya

Flew and looked down and led the folk onward.

Hungry and tired, they trudged ever further

Into a maze of valleys and hills.

After a long month faint-hearts among them

Muttered complaints against Khādha’s folly.

Then came the eagles’ cry, ‘Yakaveli’

From the high crags the envoys of Bruya

Spoke once again to earth’s noblest children,

‘Gather by clan and climb to the hilltops.

When evening comes, cast off all your clothes

And lie down to sleep there. So speaks our master.’

Khādha was right, Bruya had brought them

Safe to their goal, and now the chief’s people

Followed their god’s words, though they were strange ones.

In the night Bruya sent forth his daughters

Riding the west wind to Yakaveli.

All were asleep as they made their passage

Save a small boy, the night’s only witness.

He saw the shining steeds of the Langal

Course overhead and, shaking their manes,

Scatter a rain of light on the sleepers.

As they woke up and saw the light morning

It seemed yet another day on their journey,

But then they found themselves and their kinsfolk

Naked as babes and glowing like stars.

Truly a wonder had overcome them.

Then for the last time they saw the eagles

Land on the rocks and speak the god’s message,

‘You are the highest nation on earth now.

This is your blessing; this is your burden.

Don your new clothes and go with your leader.’

They watched the great birds soar into heaven

And, looking down, they found on the bushes

Fresh linen garments, gleaming like dew.

They put them on and stood on the hilltops,

Loftier than kings and brighter than giants.

 

Down the rough hillside walked bands of travellers,

Bearing their packs and driving their cattle

Into the pleasant vale of Wairniz

Where beasts could drink, and people could listen

To the fresh words of Ina’s son Khādha.

‘You kept your faith in Bruya’s protection

On the long trail,’ the young man said to them.

‘Now he has blessed you with a new standing

In the wide world. Henceforth you are Ulbs.

Reborn in the rain and Rutnul no longer.’

Khādha resumed, ‘I warn you, my kinsfolk,

We cannot stay in this barren country.

Let us press on along this swift river:

Soon we shall reach a broad, fertile valley

Where we can dwell. The powers go with us!’

 

 

 

Part II

 

Bright shone the travellers in the dark valley.

Sparks of the sun they seemed to the watchers

Hiding in bushes over the chasm.

Like constellations in a night sky

These bands of strangers moved through the shadow.

Who were the strangers? Even the wisest

On the black ridge could not comprehend them.

Could they be gods who walked on the earth

Or ancestors come to visit the living?

Mere human travellers caught in the sunlight?

Whoever the strangers, news of their coming

Ran on before them down the long valley.

Ere they approached the meeting of rivers

Watchers were waiting, keen to discover

What sort of beings entered their kingdom.

 

Fifteen long days the folk and their cattle

Walked on the winding bank of the Wairniz

Till the enclosing hills fell away

And they saw a wide green plain stretch before them.

Far off there gleamed a great silver river.

This was the paradise known to the ancients,

Truly surpassing Khādha’s foretelling!

And when they saw the wide fields of wheat there,

Green in the sun between the rich farmsteads,

They felt power and said, ‘This is ours now!’

Then they heard Khādha’s voice calling to them,

‘You may not take the land of another.

What are you, raiders such as pursued us

Back in old Kūmi? Come, let’s go onward.

Where the bear meets the us, there shall we settle.’

So Khādha turned away from the plain

And set his right foot upon an old trackway

Leading through bushes under the hill-flanks.

Knowing the foresight of their young chieftain,

Even the dour reluctantly followed.

When they had filed for three hours or longer

Through the dense bushes, suddenly something

Burst through the brush and stood on the pathway!

There was a great brown bear who flared at them

And wore a golden crown on his head.

Khādha’s retainers drew their bows quickly,

Ready to kill the threatening monster –

Before the chief spoke, the beast had faded

Into the air like a fleeting rainbow.

 

Then Khādha murmured, ‘That is the sign.’

Khādha and his men built up an altar

Out of the stones they found on the wayside.

On it they laid sticks cut up for burning.

Then the chief slew the best of the oxen

And cut off its head to give as an offering.

As the fire sent its perfume to heaven

All the six chieftains gathered around it,

Clasping each other’s hands in a circle.

‘O Lord above, we thank you for your sign

And for your favour!’ sang the six fathers.

‘Here shall your altar stand for all ages.

Oxhead we name it, heart of our people.’

They roasted the body of the huge victim

And cut up its flesh to feed the whole people.

They claimed the new land with great celebration.

 

Mothers and children, husbands and wives

Sat by the fires on that splendid evening,

Talking, embracing, singing together.

Some were already sleeping in skins

Or drowsing beneath the strange trees and bushes.

Out of those bushes came wiry fingers,

Curling around the necks of the drowsy,

Driving bronze daggers into the sleepers.

The scattered people, weary from marching,

Knew all too late a foe was upon them.

But little Khuvaz (who’d seen the Daughters)

Heard a strange rustling out in the darkness.

As he peered outward, he saw black figures

Stealing toward the camp where he lay.

Then Khuvaz screamed, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming!’

Right through the camps the warning cry sounded,

Calling each man to arms and resistance,

Calling all the women and children to safety.

Adha and Kava, two of Yur’s peasants,

Took axe and knife to serve them as weapons.

With their comrades they strode to the north camp

Where the small boy had seen the intruders

And now his kinsmen struggled against them.

Adha saw one big brute clad in leather

Drag an old woman up to the campfire.

Then Adha raged and no man could stop him.

He ran at this giant like a real madman,

Thrust his sharp knife (before he could parry)

Through the man’s jerkin, under his ribcage.

By the foe’s death the old wife was rescued.

Adha and Kava, little Chief Khādha

Fought the attackers hard at the north camp.

Their spirits burned for their wives and children.

Other men battled more of the strangers

Who had sprung up upon the south side.

East of the fires hills rose, black and silent,

And from the very rocks crept dark shadows,

Past the few watchmen who were not fighting,

Into the heart of Khādha’s encampment.

With bronze they slew the women and children.

Wild panic seized the Ulbs at that hour.

It seemed a savage god was upon them.

Even the brave fighters fled through the forest,

Crazily searching westward for safety.

On the black plain more enemies waited.

‘Sons of the Rain!’ the clear voice of Khādha

Rang through the night and cut through the shouting.

‘Look at the natives by our fires’ light.

They are but dozens while we are hundreds.

Wild dogs like these shall never defeat us!’

Khādha went dancing through the fierce raiders,

Sticking a dozen with his sharp rapier.

His good men followed up from the north camp,

Clearing a middle yard of intruders,

Bringing relief to men who were failing.

They formed a circle round the encampment.

Ikwa the Warlike breathed gently on them,

Steeling their hearts; and so, they persisted

All through the night against the foe’s charges.

Wounded and wives stayed safe in the circle.

When morning came the wearied defenders

Knew not if life or death lay before them,

But as they gazed out into the half-light

Their scattered kin came walking towards them.

‘Hail,’ they said. ‘You did good work last night.

Like a great bear that’s cornered by hunters

You fought the natives, striking down many.

We fled like cowards.’ ‘Cowards you might be,’

Khādha spoke softly, ‘but you bring good news.

Ivuke, Lātma search the woods swiftly.

Do you see natives hiding or waiting?’

‘All we remark are men dead or dying.

The living have turned back home to their farmsteads.’

Then the unwilling warriors rested.

 

They had much labour after the battle.

Wounds must be treated. Dead must be buried.

(Sixty were slaughtered out of six hundred.

Sixty attackers lay lifeless also.)

Folk must be found, and animals gathered.

While men worked, Khādha summoned the chieftains.

With their own hands the fathers and rulers

Built up two altars near to the first one.

They slew three oxen, heeding old custom,

And offered the heads to gods who had helped them.

Bruya who led them, Ikwa who saved them,

Yenga who taught them all that they knew,

All were exalted by the six fathers.

The day’s work over, how the Ulbs feasted!

They had regained the land through their blood.

 

 

Part III

 

Three drably clad men stole through the shadows,

Silently seeking something unknown.

Bows in their hands and on their backs arrows

But none of Tadhesk’s beasts was their quarry,

Nor did they track a man through the forest.

One of these fellows, leaving his comrades,

Strode on ahead and slipped from their vision.

They followed after on the rough pathway

But their low voices showed consternation.

Was he in trouble? Had he been taken?

Out of the briers they saw him coming,

Waving his arms as if he were crazy,

‘Ivuke, Sumbu, I’ve found a valley

Hidden from sight with streams of pure water.

This is a splendid home for Yur’s people!’

 

Thus, the clans sought new places to settle

In woods and valleys by the Broad River.

On the rude camps they built a fine village:

Behind a stockade rose ten well-thatched houses,

Khādha’s the greatest, fit for a monarch.

Under its wide porch sat the young father,

Log for a throne and children about him.

Bruka his wife was mending some trousers.

Then at the gate they heard a commotion:

Strangers were shouting loud at the guards.

Khādha arose and walked to the gateway

Where he encountered four well-dressed fellows

Demanding admittance from the rough watchmen

To the high presence of the big man.

‘I am the big man,’ Khādha said. ‘Follow!’

So little Khādha led the tall strangers

Over the roots and stumps to his house.

He sat on his throne and asked the men curtly,

‘What is your business, sirs, in my village?’

At first the strangers bowed and were silent.

Then one man spoke, a grey-bearded elder,

‘My name is Shan, my lord, and I have here

Shelesk the son of our famous ruler.

King Shetesk sent us, wishing that neighbours

Like our two peoples should live in concord.’

‘I bid you welcome, Malaya envoys.

Your peaceful message also I welcome.

But mere sweet words do not satisfy me.

How do I know you won’t attack us

Treacherously as you did before?’

‘Our kind wills peace,’ said Shan, ‘and he orders

Punishment on all subjects that break it.

His greatest longing would be a treaty

Settling that peace between our two peoples.

He offers prizes if you are willing.’

‘Prizes? What are we, beasts that need feeding

So, we don’t bite you?’ asked the proud chieftain.

‘Perish the thought! We offer you tokens

Of our new friendship. We have fine cattle

While your herds here are meagre and frail.

And out good sovereign has a young daughter.

Though still a child, she’s clever and pretty,

A suitable bride for one of your sons.’

‘What shall we give you for all your bounty?’

‘Simply a pledge of peace and a border.’

 

Khādha, though friendly, summoned the chieftains

For only they could settle the matter.

While he awaited his peers’ arrival

He bade his guests come into his mansion

Where Bruka served them mead and dried meat.

Two hours had passed, and nearing was evening

When all the chiefs foregathered in Oxhead.

They followed Khādha into an outhouse –

Out of the strange ambassadors’ hearing –

Where Khādha told them of Shan’s proposals.

Sange broke silence, ‘These are fair terms,

Though we, who are victors, might grow dependent

On those we vanquished.’ ‘True, but we have small

Choice on that score – unless we turn homeward.’

Khādha said quietly. Mumpike shivered.

With ancient pride the lords of old Kūmi

Entered the hall and greeted the envoys.

With them they drank and ate the scant rations

But the proud chiefs withheld their answer

Until the morning. So, they must tarry.

On that warm morning all of them gathered

In Khādha’s porch, the envoys and chieftains

Sange walked over, whispered to Shan

And set off a murmur among the people.

Silence returned when Khādha stepped forward.

‘We’ll take your offer, Malaya envoys,

We’ll take your cattle, grain and the rest

As reparation for our great losses,

We’ll vow you peace and fix a firm border

If you acknowledge this land is ours.’

‘This land is yours, we grant it quite freely,

A bagatelle to Shetesk of Rēni.

There is no hindrance holding up peace now.’

Said Shan the elder. Khādha, unspeaking,

Grasped Shan’s right hand. With that it was settled.

Once more the chieftains slaughtered three cattle,

Called on the gods to witness the treaty,

Fed all the people on that great day.

Shelesk and his men offered three whole sheep

Up to their gods, a waste of good mutton!

Last of all Khādha and the good envoys

Held three days’ games to mark the peace treaty.

Hunters of Kūmi, farmers of Rēni

Wrestled and ran and shot the bow keenly.

The Malayal gasped to see the Ulbs victors.

 

Shetesk’s surveyors marked out a border,

Dug as a ditch by Malaya soldiers.

Four leagues it stretched down south from the Wairniz,

Cutting the rich plain from the poor uplands,

Until it reached the brook Putamele.

Puta Brook bounded Khādha’s small kingdom

Eight leagues upstream; from that point a new ditch

Cut through thick forest back to the Wairniz,

New-founded Ulbanēdhu’s north border.

That land was theirs, but wholly surrounded.

On their bleak island clans from old Kūmi

Lived as they could on rabbit and berries.

Often, they begged Malaya farmers.

Where was the paradise they had been promised?

Where was the honour? Where was the power?

 

Mumpike sat at home in his hut

On his bed’s edge. Around him were gathered

His sons and daughters, daughters-in-law

And many grandchildren. Mumpike grumbled,

‘Here we are, starving in a strange country.

We could have lived like lords in our homeland

If that young crackpot hadn’t enticed us

Over the hills and into this thicket.

It wasn’t Heaven’s Lord who inspired him –

This is my guess – but Evra the Fallen!’

Granddaughter Murez asked the old chieftain,

‘What do we do now, grandfather dear?’

‘Strike camp and go home, my little piglet.’

All held their breath, but slowly a murmur

Grew and resounded through generations.

On a cool morning Mumpike’s people

Stood in their yard with bags of provisions,

Waiting for the final word of their leader.

In their midst stood a pole with an image

Of a raised hand, the emblem of peace.

Mumpike walked in front of his people.

‘We are alone,’ the old man said to them.

‘None will come with us, none of our kinsfolk,

But we are right to spurn their adventure.

Come, o my children, back to Kūmi!’

Young Widhutima, wounded at Oxhead,

Lifted the standard. People cheered hoarsely.

Mumpike, limping, marched through the gate

And into the wild. The ragged crowd followed

Into the forest, into the silence.

 

 

Part IV

 

Beautiful Kāma, daughter of Ina,

Put on the better of her two dresses,

Tied a fine girdle about her waist,

Combed out her hair as girls did in those days,

Left while her man and children were sleeping.

Kāma stepped proudly through the still village,

Came to the gate and greeted the watchmen.

‘Be well my lady!’ answered the watchman.

‘Up again early? Can’t you sleep well?’

Kāma just laughed and passed through the gateway.

Crossing the bare fields, she gained the dark forest.

She knew a secret way to the border.

And she strode onward, over the King’s Ditch,

Until she reached the old, dying chestnut

Where Gum, her native lover, was waiting.

 

Uproar broke out in Sange’s quiet village

When they heard tell their lady had vanished.

Peme her husband, Khādha her brother

Fetched the best trackers and gave them orders:

Find Kāma now and bring her back quickly.

Ivuke and his old comrade Lātma

Followed her traces through the wild forest.

Reaching the road that crossed Shetesk’s border.

They found her footprints in the dirt leading

Over the bridge to Malayaveli.

They walked on boldly to the old chestnut,

Where they saw bootmarks of a big fellow.

Still they tracked Kāma and her companion

To a near farm where fierce dogs were roaming.

They’d found their quarry but could not catch her.

 

Though at first glance life went on flowing

Calmly and smoothly like the Broad River,

Under the surface currents were twisting.

Khādha was seen conferring with Peme.

Lātma slipped to and fro through the forest.

Then one day Peme set off with Lātma

Bearing some skins to sell at the market.

They took the one good road through the forest,

Crossed the plank bridge but soon they departed

From the wide track that traders had trodden.

Lātma and Peme soon found Gum’s farmhouse,

Empty, it seemed, of human presence.

When they approached the gate of the farmyard

They cast down meat to lure the dogs off them.

Swiftly those dogs succumbed to the poison.

Peme and Lātma entered the cottage

Where they knew wanton Kāma was hiding.

When she saw Peme Kāma screamed sharply.

Quickly he seized her while trusty Lātma

Fastened a fox skin around her mouth.

Gagged with foul fur, her hands tied behind her,

Kāma was dragged across her lover’s farmyard.

Out of the house there stormed a young fellow,

Strong as a bear and glaring with anger.

He would protect his lord’s house and woman.

Gum’s trusty servant seized Peme’s arm

And threw the man over. Still clasping Kāma,

Lātma the agile drove his left fist

Against the man’s jaw and knocked him off balance.

Peme and Lātma held him and tied him.

Beautiful Kāma, daughter of Ina,

Dress smeared with mud and bound like a prisoner

Under the guard of Peme and Lātma,

Came to her village humbled and broken.

Neighbours and kinsfolk jeered the sinner.

That was the price clan honour demanded

In the proud days of Ulbic foundation.

In the house Peme gently released her

From all her bonds and spoke to her, weeping,

‘Kāma, my love, forgive me, forgive me!’

Kāma stood stiff and pale as a statue.

‘Forgive you?’ she whispered. ‘You too are cruel,

Cruel like all men of every nation.

Let me go, master, back to my children,

All that I have now.’ Peme sobbed deeply.

 

Under a pale, cold sky marched the peasants.

Clad in strange hooded jackets and bearing

Cudgels and staves, they made a small army.

Gum, bent on vengeance, went at their head

And after him came sons, servants and neighbours.

Hidden in forest, Sange’s men waited.

They were well armed and ready for ambush.

Lātma’s sixth sense had spied the band coming.

Sange had called men quickly to combat.

Now they heard faintly feet on the road.

‘We’ll teach those cowards such a good lesson!’

Cried Gum haughty. Boldly the farmer

And his companions made for the King’s Bridge.

Did they remember their monarch’s edict

Punishing subjects who broke the peace?

Swaggering at the head of his army,

Gum crossed the bridge and planted his right foot

On ground forbidden. Swift came from heaven

Fire to strike down the reckless invader,

Break the King’s Bridge and send the men tumbling.

Crack! went the thunder. ‘Hark! cried Lord Bruya

Out of high heaven. ‘This is the holy

Home of my people. Noone may enter

Unless in peace and unless with justice.

Heed, little men, the lesson I teach you.’

Down in the mud the little men cowered,

Stricken with fear at great Bruya’s anger.

On the foul bank sprawled Gum’s battered body.

Sange’s defenders listened, astounded,

As this disaster struck their opponents.

Up the steep bank the Malayal scrambled.

Some fled in panic back to their houses.

Others helped wounded clamber to safety.

Last of all came four men climbing slowly,

Bearing the corpse of Gum, their slain leader.

Sange’s men made their way through the forest,

Came to its edge and into the open.

There was the King’s Bridge smashed into firewood.

There in the ditch lay enemy weapons.

Sange’s men looked in wonder and hope.

Malaya wives and children were waiting

For the return of their men as heroes:

No heroes came to village and homestead

But frightened men, bedraggled and trembling,

Bearing news of a mighty god’s anger.

 

News reached King Shetesk in his far palace

And he desired to see what was passing.

Swiftly he called a party of guards

And his adviser Shan and departed.

Six days they rode towards Ulbanēdhu.

At length they came to Khādha’s fine village.

Old Shan announced his master’s arrival

And he politely asked the stern watchmen

If they might promptly speak to Chief Khādha.

Swiftly they led them into his presence.

Shetesk quizzed Khādha on the strange tidings,

Then summoned Sange and his companions.

He viewed the broken bridge and examined

Malaya folk who’d fled the disaster.

Shetesk stood musing for a few moments.

Then the king spoke, ‘I’ve heard all your stories

And I believe the truth of your telling.

Surely Gum’s men were plotting an outrage –

Stealing a wife away from her husband

Who is her master and protector.

Praise be to Bruya for his keen justice!

Nor do I take such wrongdoing lightly.

Let Gum’s estate be stripped from his heirs

And yielded up to the clan of Chief Sange.

Let six fine sheep be offered to Bruya.

So, do I honour my loyal allies

That I shall grant their chieftain a title

Fitting the courage of his proud people.

Let Khādha now be Count of Wairniz.

Let him take loving charge of his country.’

 

 

Part V

 

Clasped in the icy coils of a dragon

Lay the fair land our fathers had chosen.

Turned into seas of snow were the wide fields.

Trees in the woods stood leafless and hoary.

Skin of ice-covered Snake River Wairniz.

Caught in the very claws of the dragon

Were the five towns, our fathers’ foundations.

Behind their stockades no animals wandered.

Ghostly snow hid the ground and the houses.

Icicles, toothlike, hung from the eaves.

Chilled by the evil breath of the dragon,

Our fathers huddled with wives and children

Round living fires which warmed them and quickened.

‘Will the cold last for ever and ever?’

‘No, my son. Spring is coming,’ said Khādha.

As in the far-off forest of Kūmi,

So, in the new land by the Broad River

Eskadh brought warmth and slew the ice-dragons.

Freed from its skin of ice was the river,

Freed were the fields and freed were the people.

Freed were the men of Oxhead for labour:

With their new oxen, given by Shetesk,

They ploughed the ground they’d won around Oxhead.

They broke the soil and cleared roots and stones.

They gave rough words of thanks to Lord Ikwa.

Then Khādha rose and summoned his people,

Led them all out to the fields west of Oxhead,

Strode out alone upon the tilled earth.

Ina’s son threw his face up to the heaven,

Down to the earth and once more to heaven.

‘O Father Ikwa, lord of seedtime,

O’ Mother Kui, lady of acres,

Bless our first sowing in our new homeland,

Bless all our men who sow under heaven,

Bless all the seed we shall sow hereafter!’

He drew a handful of corn from his basket

And cast it widely, chanting and chanting

Like a fierce fighter. As he danced onward

Crowds of his people took up his chanting,

Victory singing over the winter.

Khādha began his people’s first sowing

And he began our high Feast of Springtide,

But his plain folk weren’t given to drinking,

Profligate eating, wanton behaviour.

They simply sang and danced under heaven.

 

In the skies martins now wheeled and twittered,

Joyful news bringing of life’s resurgence.

From the wide halls of Brudyiyudh’s palace

Over the clouds they’d come winging eastwards,

Bringing her blessings to human houses.

As they flew down, they passed seven riders,

Happy to see this sign of the season.

In their midst rode King Shetesk’s son Shelesk.

Grey-bearded Shan did follow behind him.

And about moved their minions and guards.

 

When they reached Oxhead, Ina’s son Khādha

Greeted his guests more warmly than ever,

Found them all stables, fed them like princes.

Past were those days of fear and suspicion

When the strange men had first reached the village.

Now Shan and Shelesk came there as brothers.

Brothers they would be if their proposal

Came out aright. And so, at the banquet

Shelesk leaned over to his friend Khādha,

Spoke to him almost in a low whisper.

‘Khādha,’ he said, ‘you know my lord father

Has a young daughter – he has begotten

So many of us on all his women!

Malbeke’s her name, our pretty jewel.

She’s nine years old, or would it be ten now?

Father proposes that she should marry

Your eldest boy, the dark one.’ ‘Tiskkhena.’

‘Wolf-slayer! Your folk truly are heroes

If they kill beasts at such a young age!

What do you say to Father’s suggestion?

He’ll give Malbeke much land and cattle.’

Khādha thought swiftly and made his answer,

‘WE made a pact a year ago, brother,

I thank the king for his new proposal.

By the gods I confirm the betrothal!’

The prince’s companions and the count’s household

Toasted in ale the newly matched couple.

Tiskkhena stood amid the commotion,

Dazed for a while at this sudden turning,

Now growing proud of what was becoming.

 

When morning came and all were at breakfast

Under the wide roof of Khādha’s mansion,

Shan said to him in a gentle manner,

‘Lord, I am glad that our noble peoples

Soon shall be tied together in wedlock.

However, we’ve more serious matters

Troubling our realm, I thought you should know.

Enemy tribes – the same as pursued you

When you were living in Kūmi mountains –

Come to our borders, harass the people.

We both should stand together against them

And, if the worst should come to the worst,

Your valiant men should serve with our soldiers.

They’d be the pride of King Shetesk’s army.

Surely, my lord, I have your agreement?’

‘Yes, Master Shan, you have my agreement

If it should come to such time of peril

For both our peoples … but I must summon

My brother-chieftains, for you’ll be needing

Their consent too. I cannot command them.’

 

Sange and Yur and Brilflir and Brulflir,

Aged and wise, the lords of old Kūmi,

Soon came to Khādha in his wide mansion,

Curious to learn the news Shan was bringing,

Curious to hear the envoy’s new proposals.

So, the man spoke. The chiefs listened gravely

To his reports of raids and destruction,

To his appeal to join the king’s army.

When he had finished his words of warning

They were united in their opinion.

‘You speak the truth: I say it in sorrow,’

Uttered Chief Sange. ‘Knowing those tribesman,

We must make common cause with your people,

Both good and evil.’ Khādha and Yur,

Brilflir and Brulflir wearily nodded.

 

Shan spoke again, ‘I thank you, my lords,

But I must – it grieves me – trouble you further.

In these dark times my king has commanded

That every village in his wide kingdom

Should yield up boys to train for his army.’

Brulflir growled deeply but Shan continued,

‘In times of peril our loyal allies

Also, must bear a share of the burden.

Thus, I propose that each of your brave clans

Offer five boys to train with the army.

So, do we honour our Ulbic allies

That we shall place their sons in the king’s guard,

High hope of every youngster in Reni.’

Brulflir barked out, ‘You’d send all our children

Off to the wars to face death and mayhem?’

Khādha spoke quietly, ‘Sir we are few,

Numbering just four hundred and fifty.

If our sons leave us, who’ll tend the cattle?

Who’ll plough the fields? Who’ll play in the forest?

We must reject the good king’s decree.’

Every man froze as if there had entered

A fearsome serpent. Then Shan spoke sweetly,

‘I beg your pardon. We hadn’t realised

What a great load it was we were asking

Your folk to bear, so few and so precious.

Now I propose that each of your five clans

Offer just two to train with our army.

I know I’m being hard on your people.’

‘We can accept this lesser demand,’

Said Khādha gravely. Once more they nodded.

 

 

Part VI

 

Out in fields a small crowd of people

Squabbled and talked and hugged one another.

This was no market, no merrymaking

But the sad day when ten of our children

Bade their goodbye to mother and father.

Tears filled the eyes of great-uncle Sange

When he beheld young Sangeyin clinging

Fast to his mother, slighted by many,

Yet her three children still adored Kāma.

He was the eldest, though just thirteen.

Finally came the time when the children

Sadly, must part from father and mother.

Shan summoned all those who must go with him,

Servants and guards and boys fresh-enlisted.

Kāma kissed Sangeyin for the last time.

He joined the other boys who were crowding

Round Master Shan the charming enchanter.

Next to him stood a man with a standard

Topped with the golden fish of the kings.

Sangeyin turned to see Kāma weeping.

Then that mixed crew set off for the King’s Bridge,

Soundly rebuilt from Shetesk’s rich coffers,

And found their horses stabled at Sange’s

Newly won farm. While Shelesk onward

Shan took the boys to camp at Skull Castle.

 

Though it was spring, and summer was coming,

Cloud in a blanket hung over Rēni.

Cool wind was blowing out of the west

And drizzle was driving through to the poor folk’s

Skin, the dejected people of Homeland.

Now at the market, now from the pedlar,

Now from the labourers toiling for Sange

They heard that troops were passing through northwards.

Dim in the distance sometimes they heard them

On the long road that ran by the River.

‘There go our sons,’ said some anxious parents

But another folk upbraided them sharply.

‘That can’t be so, for Shan the king’s spokesman

Told me himself they’d keep the boys safely

Out of harm’s way for two years of training.’

One day a stranger came into Yurta

(Home of Yur’s people), carrying trinkets,

Pieces of amber, things that the poor folk

Could not afford, but he carried also

News of the army Shetesk had gathered.

‘As I was passing south towards Esta

Yesterday morning, I saw a stunning

Sight on the green fields: men in their thousands

Drawn up in cohorts, clad in all colours.

They stretched, I swear it, to the horizon.

Each stood with spear and shield and bronze helmet

Like a grim statue. I turned aside, went

Down to the river; but shouts and trumpets

Heard in the distance told me that something

Was going on. The army was moving.

Later I met some curious people –

Traders like me, but some of them scoundrels,

Swindlers and harlots, lice of the army.

This bunch informed me that our lord Shetesk

Was waging war against the barbarians.

Those Pellavel who ravage our borders,

Led by wild Lupa, soon will be hammered

By the best men that Rēni can muster,

Shetesk’s own guard, the horsemen of Pan …’

‘Did you see boys there?’ asked a pale woman.

‘No madam. Fighting men from all districts

I saw at Esta, but they had brought no

Boys to the muster. I’ve heard the rumours

But I tell you the stories are groundless.

I saw the army with my own eyeballs!

But if you’re worried about your loved ones

I’ve something here that might calm your anguish.

Look at this necklace. Isn’t it pretty?

In the north ladies swear that this pendant

Brings them good fortune if they should rub it.’

‘Sir, while I welcome news of the battle

You are insulting me and my sisters

If you would sell us magical trinkets

In our distress. We’re poor and we’re foreign

But we’re not stupid as you are thinking.

Move on and take the news to our kinsfolk

Down south in Oxhead, Sangeta, Doghouse.

You might find them a little more willing.’

‘Good advice, madam,’ said the strange pedlar,

Shouldered his pack and set off for Oxhead.

 

When the man came to Oxhead and Doghouse

He found folk keen to hear his adventure,

Some even keen to buy of his jewels

As an adornment and a protection

In times of dullness and times of danger.

Life went on flowing in its new courses

And little told one day from another

But when a stranger came to the village,

Bearing fresh news of Shetesk’s campaign,

Or when a rumour swept through the country.

 

Khādha’s boy Ina and his friend Silsit

Went out to play one day in the forest.

Silsit, pursued by Ina the robber,

Ran far until he saw something gleaming,

Gleaming and moving down on the ground.

When he looked closely, he saw a wonder:

There was a brown toad wearing a golden

Crown on its head but painfully crawling,

For some wild beast had crewed off the toad’s front

Leg, though the wound appeared to be healing.

Curious Silsit picked up the creature,

Bore it with pride to his young friend Ina,

And the two boys ran home with the monster.

Silsit was teasing Ina’s poor sisters

When mother Irmez happened upon them.

‘What are you doing?’ cried Silsit’s mother.

‘What have you got there, you little rascal?’

‘I found this wounded toad in the forest.

I thought the girls might take it and heal it.

They’re kind to creatures,’ said Silsit slyly.

When Irmez saw the toad at close quarters

Her eyes grew wide and her mouth hung open.

‘Give me that toad. Oh Silsi, you’ve stumbled

On a dark secret that little children

Shouldn’t encounter, but the gods willed it.’

Leaving the children to their own confusion,

Irmez made haste to find cousin Khādha.

(All Ulbs were cousins!) He was at home

And straightaway she showed him Silsit’s crowned monster.

Khādha flinched sharply. Gravely he nodded.

‘You are right, Irmez. You’ve seen the meaning

Of this dark sign. The king will be wounded,

And I fear greatly I am the victim,

Not brother Shetesk who has great armies

For his defence and crushing his foes.

I shall face any enemy bravely

And I shall get my whole people ready

For what befalls us.’ ‘You are right Khādha.’

Said mother Irmez. ‘What a dark fate

A little toad brings us, but the gods willed it.’

Carrying still the animal sacred,

Irmez walked deeper into the forest

Till she had left the village behind her.

She licked the scabby stump of the creature,

Murmured a blessing, then she released it.

Khādha meanwhile was riding his donkey

Round all the districts of Ulbanēdhu,

Telling his people of the strange omen,

Ordering them to watch homes and borders,

Handing out weapons for the defence.

Brilflir rebuked him, ‘Dear brother Khādha,

You rush around and cause a commotion

Because of a foolish woman’s foreboding,

Not true intelligence of disaster?’

Khādha replied, ‘The gods tell me the truth.’

 

 

Part VII

 

Sia the sharp and Ina’s man Kauva

Stood by the gate that led into Oxhead.

They had been watching there in the burning

Sun for three hours and cursing Count Khādha

Who’d told them, ‘Friends, be especially watchful.

Sia said, ‘Khādha once was inspired

But he has let power go to his noodle.

Though the king’s army’s battering Lupa

Into the ground, our leader sees enemies

Everywhere, or so his witch tells him.

We have to follow his silly orders,

Stand in this heat when we should be dozing

In the cool shade. The poets will one day

Reckon us heroes, Sia and Kauva,

Men who defended their land from phantoms.’

‘Right, Sia. He’s not liked my old master.

Ina was straight. Knew what he was doing.

He didn’t flit round butterfly-fashion:

One foe today, another tomorrow!

Still, these are troubled times that we live in.’

Sia heard hoofbeats down on the highway,

Sharpened his eyes and saw a lone rider

Trotting uphill and visibly weary.

Horses were rare in days of the heroes

And their appearance presaged things weighty.

Sia and Kauva saw his blue raiment,

Mark of the high officials of Rēni.

As he drew closer, they saw the golden

Fish on his breast, the badge of the monarch.

‘Something is up,’ said Kauva to Sia.

Then the lone rider slowed and dismounted,

Led his fawn nag towards the two watchmen.

‘Halt! Who goes there?’ cried Kauva in challenge.

‘Kūm the king’s servant, friend of Count Khādha,

Coming to him with news of great moment.’

‘I know you sir,’ said Sia, eyes narrowed.

‘You came to Oxhead in Shelesk’s party

Three months ago. You didn’t stand out them

But now I know you. Welcome to Oxhead!

I shall conduct you to our Chief Khādha.’

Sharp Sia whistled for his replacement,

Led man and horse to Khādha’s big house,

Presented the envoy to his dear leader

Unctuously, while worthy Tiskkhena

Took the man’s horse to drink water with the donkeys.

 

Khādha stepped out, his yellow hair shining

Bright in the sun, and called to his village

Like a brass trumpet. ‘Come, o my kinsfolk!

Shetesk has sent a messenger to us.

Gather and hear his news of great moment!’

People of Oxhead came from all quarters,

Gathered round Kūm in afternoon heat.

Kūm stood beneath the eaves and addressed them,

‘My lord and my fellows, Shetesk has sent me

With happy news for all folk of Rēni.

Yesterday morning Shetesk’s great army

Met the wild bands of Lupa the Hairy

On grassy banks below Pitisitta

Hills, where a stream flows out of the forest.

I heard this news from soldiers who fought there.

When the wild warriors rushed to attack us,

Our general Pitiesk ordered the fearsome

Horsemen of Pan to charge them in flank

While other squadrons from the same nation

Rode to attack the rear of their army.

Infantry too, spurred on by bold Pitiesk,

Charged up the hill to face the wild braggarts.

Under assault from Rēninu weapons,

Pressed on all sides by Pitiesk’s tactics,

Those hairy heroes broke up and ran.

Every man did seek his own safety,

Swiftest among them was Lupa the savage,

Who gained the forest with a few loyal

Comrades of his, a resolute leader!

Evraprain slipped off after his master.

Those who remained were cut down in dozens

And those who fled our cavalry slaughtered.

Pitiesk ordered prayers of thanksgiving

For the wild hosts were utterly routed

With their foolhardy leader abandoned.

My lord and fellows, fold of the empire.

Celebrate victory with a vengeance!’

When Km had finished, people of Oxhead

Started a quiet cheer to begin with,

Growing in moments into a tumult.

Though they begged Kūm to stay in their village

Or to take word to their scattered kinsfolk

Out in the woods, he told them quite firmly,

‘I must ride onward, onward to Esta,

Bearing a true account of the battle.’

 

Bearing a true account of the battle,

Khādha rode onward, westward to Sange

On his old donkey, while the other fellows

Took the good news to Brilflir and Brulflir,

Yur and the lonely men of the forest.

Victory was a cause of rejoicing

For people deemed the danger was over

And their young sons would spend life in safety.

Some bought out jars of ale they’d been keeping,

Poured out a drink for all of their neighbours.

Others meanwhile gave loaves or the little

Cakes that we still exchange on our feast days,

Memory of a poor time but noble.

Sange, contesting his reputation,

Offered three pigs for slaughter and roasting.

From miles around they came to the meadows –

Sad places whence their sons had been taken –

And there they feasted long by the fireside,

Porridge and pork and rough ale of Rēni,

Till the warm sky grew light with the morning.

Kāma was sitting silent by Peme,

Peme was gazing into the fire,

As they had done for month upon month now.

Then the forlorn man lifted his hand,

Laid it upon the arm of his wife.

She did not flinch nor shrink from his touch

But turned her head to him, smiling so faintly.

If you had watched by flickering firelight

You could have missed this transient moment,

Unexplained change for Kāma and Peme.

 

Miles to the north in their lonely valley

Yur and his people also were feasting,

Feasting on bread and rough ale of Rēni.

Though they had found a home amid roses,

Fate had denied them wealth of their fellows.

Still the folk ate and drank in high spirits

And their stout watchmen watched at their fences

As Khādha said – and who was this coming

Through the dark night? Three angular figures,

Faces like whey and dressed in tatters.

They were not fighters fled from the battle.

They were not robbers; nor were they trappers

Plying their trade for family and nation,

Though they seemed Ulbs in dress and demeanour.

‘Halt! Who goes there?’ cried one of the watchmen.

‘Widhurez I am, Mumpike’s cousin,’

Said the gaunt stranger, sunken eyes staring.

‘Widhu my sister, son Widhutima,

Both have come with me through many trials,

Yet we still carry hope¹ in our hearts.’

‘Welcome back, kinsfolk,’ said the glad watchmen.

‘We’d thought you’d perished in the wild forest,

Murdered by thieves or dead for starvation,

But you’re still living!’ Into the village

Revenants walked to people’s amazement.

Kindly they shared their food with the hungry,

Listened to tales of hardship in Kūmi

And of the bitter choice to return

And of the murderous Pellave brigands.

The refugees slept the whole day that followed.

 

Widhu means ‘hope’.

 

 

Part VIII

 

‘Widhurez, Widhu and Widhutima,

You have no home now you have returned here,

Come with me, friends, and live in my village!

Lodge in my house, for you must recover

From wounds and hunger,’ said the Chief Khādha.

‘Thank you, my lord,’ Widhurez, fearful,

‘But we would go to where we were living

Last year before old Mumpike led us

Out of this “thicket” into the wild beasts’

Haunt, the deserted forest of Kūmi.

We would rebuild our huts and the weedy

Soil we would clear once more with our hoes.

We would build up new lives, a new village

On the sad ruins called Mumpiketa –

With your permission, lord, and your favour.’

‘You have my permission, friends, and my favour.

I will grant anything that you ask for:

Animals, seed, and if you desire it

I will send men to build your houses.

No “lord” am I but friend to the needy.’

 

One of those evenings Kāma was walking

Through the lush woods with Peme her husband,

Her hand in his. She said in a murmur,

‘This is the way I went then to meet him,

Following this old track to the border.

Thrones of the gods! I thought I was clever,

Clever and daring but I was foolish.’

Ina’s proud daughter sobbed and gazed downward.

Weak Peme put his strong arm around her.

‘There, there, my love,’ said Peme to Kāma.

 

Miles to the north in woods beyond Yurta

Two men were walking close by the Snake River.

‘What a fine day!’ said Kava with gladness

To his companion Ivuke who had,

To his displeasure, no time for talking.

Ivuke sharply whistled a warning

And his alarm was taken up swiftly

All through the land from Yurta to Doghouse

And Kava started out of his dreaming

And the barbarians hid in the shadows.

Now ‘foolish’ Khādha’s foresight was proven

For he had heeded that monstrous omen,

Readied a firm defence for his country.

Pellave scouts went back to their leader

With the bad news: the Ulbs were preparing.

Scorning all talk of flight to his homeland,

Evraprain cried, ‘There’s no turning back now!

If we must die, let us die like heroes!’

Then the wild man ran down to the river,

Leapt in the stream with many behind him.

When the band reached the shore of the Homeland

They barely stopped to shake off the water

But padded onward, wolves of the forest,

Keen on the trail of Yur’s lonely village –

But Khādha’s doughty men barred the way.

Evraprain, like a furious dragon,

Flew through the woods with dozens of dragons

Flying behind him, all bearing down on

Khādha the chief, his loyal retainers,

Who stood their ground with shield and with spear.

Khādha cried, ‘Help me, Yur’s men and Brulflir,

Come to the centre!’ but those barbarians

Flew still ahead like furious dragons.

Two of them ran, as if they were sightless,

Onto the spears of brave sons of Ina.

Deaths of their comrades could not deter them:

Waves of wild fighters rolled onto spear-points,

Broke on the rocky lines of the Ulbs.

Evraprain himself had at Chief Khādha

Who sharply raised his shield to defend him.

Evraprain’s weapon broke on the shield

Of our little hero and he responded

With his good spear of Rēninu making,

Thrusting it in the breast of the savage.

Thus, he deserved the thanks of the kingdom.

But at the very moment of glory

Khādha was struck and fell to the ground.

Driven by fury, one of the fighters

Swung his sharp axe at Evraprain’s killer,

Hewed off his arm, a terrible blow.

Ina’s man Kauva, known as dullard,

Thought fast and summoned Sia to help him.

Together the two men bore the sick hero

To mother Irmez and her companions

Who had made haste to see to the wounded.

Irmez herself – inspired by Lord Yenga –

Tied off his veins and treated the wound

With mouldy bread, honey, herbs from the forest,

And in the field his men did not falter.

They charged the foe with fury of dragons.

Some they cut down with good spears of Rēni.

Others they chased for miles through the forest

Back to the very bank of Snake River

Where two or three men, lest they be captured,

Flung themselves headlong into the torrent.

Never again did they walk on earth.

Frightened and tired and torn from their leader

Stood the last crowd of Pellave fighters,

Caught on the brink of Snake River Wairniz,

Caught behind Ulb and Malaya spear-points.

Suddenly one man threw down his weapons,

Called on the others in his strange language

All to surrender. With looks of sorrow

Slowly they cast down spears, daggers, axes,

Gave themselves up to grim-visaged victors.

Evraprain’s fellows surely expected

They would be treated as they did others

But their foes merely seized them and gently

Beat them and marched them back to the village,

Where they were watered and hurried onward.

On the long road that ran by the River

Prisoners marched, though weary and halting,

Driven by blows from Shetesk’s fine soldiers

Onward to barracks in Faskeduma

Where they’d be asked a few friendly questions.

When he came out of feverish torment,

Irmez told Khādha of his tribe’s triumph.

Khādha smiled broadly but he knew nothing

Of the great prize he’d won for the kingdom:

Lupa the Wild, disguised as a warrior.

 

When news reached Shetesk in his far palace

He jumped for joy to hear that wild Lupa,

His greatest foe was captured and broken.

On the king’s orders they built gallows

In the chief city, ready to greet him.

Now Shetesk was busy mending the damage

Done by the war, so he sent his servant

Shan to find out the facts of the battle.

When Shan was done, he went to sick Khādha:

‘Be well, my lord, the leader of heroes!

Your men cut down the boldest marauders,

Yes, and you caught the chief of the villains!

How can we honour you for your service?

May we grant you the prisoners as slaves?’

‘They’ve given us much trouble already.’

‘Let us discuss the sons whom you cherish.

We might let them return to their parents

Now that the power of Lupa is broken.’

‘Though their departure grieved us,’ said Khādha,

‘We count it an honour that they should serve you.’

‘Then my lord, how are we to reward you?

What prize do you request from the kingdom?’

Though the chief still lay wounded and weakened

Under Shan’s gaze, he drew like a giant,

Bright as the sun and tall as Lord Ikwa.

‘Master,’ he said, ‘one thing first and foremost

I do desire, the lands from my borders

Down to the River!’ Shan pondered and uttered,

‘Your wish is granted, Master of Toadland!’

Shan grasped his hand. With that it was settled.