From Eskkar & Trella – The Begnnings
In this chapter, fifteen year old Trella is introduced, and her special skills described. Skills she will soon need when she arrives at Orak as a slave.
The village of Carnax, near the great southern sea . . .
Children squirmed and squeezed their way through the marketplace throng, their high-pitched voices lending a festive air to the proceedings as they attempted to get closer to the condemned, the better to witness the spectacle. Two guards tied the struggling man to the stake, ignoring the curses and threats he spewed at them. They threaded a strand of rope under his arms and fastened it high to the thick post, the better to keep the victim stretched upright. A coil of rope across his chest pinned the man to the stake, while another loop secured his feet from moving. Most of the crowd cheered in anticipation, though a few sullen faces made no attempt to hide their anger. The sun had reached its highest point in the sky, the time set for the execution. The hot, humid air intensified the strong smells of many unwashed bodies in close proximity. Already it overpowered the grilling meat and animal odors that normally dominated the marketplace.
Trella had twice before watched men put to death, but always as a child peering from behind an older playmate, and always from a distance. Now she stood close to her father, Sargat, who occupied the place of honor usually reserved for the village elder. Sargat and Ranaddi had been friends since childhood. When Ranaddi took power as leader of Carnax eighteen years earlier, he proclaimed that his long-time friend and supporter Sargat would be his most trusted advisor.
Together, the elder and his advisor ruled Carnax and the surrounding countryside. They’d guided the village’s growth and managed its affairs efficiently and fairly. The inhabitants accepted Ranaddi’s authority because they knew no other way, and expected nothing different tomorrow. As long as Sargat administered the elder’s justice evenly, few complained of inequity or mistreatment. Over the years, Ranaddi grew even more powerful and extended his rule to the adjacent farms. Secure in his wealth and power, he would rule as village elder as long as he lived, and when he died, one of his sons would succeed him, and for the inhabitants of Carnax, everyday life would continue.
Abbas fought the ropes that bound him to the post set deep into the earth. He spat at one of his captors. The offended guard responded by punching the condemned man in the stomach, a powerful blow that knocked the breath from his captive’s lungs. The crowd shouted approval at the deed. Abbas and his arrogant superiority had offended many in the last few years, and now the people took delight in his punishment. He’d killed Ranaddi’s oldest son, a callous murder that angered everyone in Carnax.
By now nearly everyone in the village and nearby farms had pushed their way into the marketplace, eager to see the unpopular son of a wealthy trader put to death. Trella knew that people were drawn to the taking of human life, fascinated by the spectacle, and even the execution of a common thief or murdered would generate a sizeable crowd. This day’s event held more drama. The death of Abbas would prove to all that even the powerful could face the ultimate punishment for their crime. For that reason alone, craftsmen put down their tools and farmers left their fields unattended, as they congregated in the marketplace to witness the killing. Others, of course, just wanted to see blood spilled, and to them it mattered little who died or for what reason. Trella guessed it was much the same in the other villages scattered throughout the land of Sumeria.
She knew other villages existed, some larger or more impressive places, especially those on the coast of the great sea. Her father had shown her Ranaddi’s trading maps, precious and secret documents, that located villages scattered throughout the land. Although Trella knew their names, as well as their distance from Carnax, she also knew she would never visit any of them. Women seldom traveled far from their homes, except perhaps when they were given in marriage.
The nearly three hundred men and women who inhabited Trella’s birthplace were more than enough for her. She knew everyone one of their faces and names, where they lived, what they owned, even how much they owed the village elder. Her ability to recall such things kept her at her father’s side, as he, in turn, stood beside Ranaddi.
Today, however, her father assigned her a different task. Sargat wanted to identify those who showed anger at the execution, anyone who might harbor ill will against Ranaddi or his justice. Her father, entrusted with ensuring the killing proceeded smoothly, worried he might miss those hints of emotion that revealed men’s thoughts. Troublemakers needed to be identified, and those who complained too loudly over Abbas’s death would be watched closely in the future; they might even find themselves banished from Carnax, the usual punishment for those few who chaffed under Ranaddi’s rule.
Trella moved off to the side, still at the front of the crowd, where she could best observe not the proceedings but the villagers. As Sargat’s daughter, no one tried to push her aside, not that the guard standing only a stride away would have permitted it. A long and plain linen scarf covered her head and shoulders, ostensibly to ward off the hot sun. But it also concealed her thick black tresses and masked the still-growing breasts that marked her as a woman. Trella kept the scarf pulled low over her forehead, making it difficult for others to see her eyes as she searched the crowd. She did it so well, so skillfully, that no one noticed her, not even those whose names she added to the list she kept in her head. There weren’t many names to record. Only nine showed their displeasure, either by the way they stood, their clenched fists, or the tension in their shoulders and neck. Those less subtle, or perhaps more angry, gave away their inner thoughts by the frowns on their faces.
Another shout drew Trella’s attention back to the condemned man – Abbas, the son of Fradmon, one of Carnax’s most powerful merchants. Tears now streamed down Abbas’s face, as at last he saw the strands of his life coming to an end. His tunic couldn’t conceal the urine that dripped down his legs, as fear weakened his belly muscles.
The leader of Ranaddi’s guards entered the open space between the prisoner tied to the post and the villagers of Carnax. An undercurrent of anticipation surged through the people at the sight of the executioner, the one who would deliver Ranaddi’s justice. Other guards held their spears with both hands to push back the surging crowd that threatened to overwhelm them in the press to get closer to the condemned.
“Abbas should be tortured before he dies! A curse on his family,” a woman shrilled, her voice rising over the village square.
Two companions pulled her away from the unruly crowd, trying to comfort her.
Trella recognized the voice of Ranaddi’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Ramen, the man Abbas killed. Two days earlier, the two men had quarreled over some trifle, both of them half-drunk after a long night of drinking. Whatever provoked the incident, no one disputed the facts. Ranaddi’s son had thrown his cup of ale in Abbas’s face, then turned to leave the ale house. Abbas, infuriated by the insult, plunged his knife into Ramen’s back.
Once again Trella lifted her eyes to scan the villagers. No one paid her the slightest attention, all too eager to see the killing, to watch a man die for his crimes. Even without the excitement, few people ever noticed Trella. She almost always attended her father, an insignificant girl who acted more like his servant than his daughter. Many in Carnax thought her dim-witted, a dull, plain girl of fourteen seasons wearing a drab dress, already past the age for marriage and without any suitors approaching her father.
Sargat knew better, of course. He’d discovered Trella’s abilities as a child, a few months before her third season, when she began reading the symbols in her tiny, bird-like voice, sitting on her father’s lap. No one had taught them to her. Few had the wits to learn them, and those chosen to study were almost always the sons of merchants and traders. But somehow Trella had learned them, as easily as she mastered lessons on weaving and sewing from her mother. At first her abilities amused her family. As she grew older, the other children of the village withdrew from her, aware of a difference between themselves and Sargat’s daughter.
Her father, however, perceived something special in his daughter. Her only brother Almaric, older by almost two seasons, took years to understand and master the symbols, and even so, his skill remained far below his sister’s. Sargat indulged himself, allowing Trella to function as his messenger and servant. His decision shocked everyone at first. Women were seldom permitted to join the councils of men, but when Ranaddi ignored the apparent transgression, everyone in the large household soon accepted the young girl’s role. She sat off to the side as Sargat administered the daily functions of life in Carnax, dealing with petty disputes and complaints, setting prices, and performing all the tedious but necessary details that Ranaddi preferred to delegate.
In her seventh season, Trella began telling her father when she thought men lied, always waiting until they were alone, and giving her reasons as calmly as a full grown woman. Over the years, Trella learned to watch men’s faces, their hands, their mouths, their eyes, and even the way they breathed. She perceived hesitations, tiny movements of the eyes and hands, all indicators, she came to realize, of whether or not a man spoke the truth.
Soon father and daughter began working together, trying to solve the questions posed when a man said one thing but believed another in his heart. Sometimes Sargat would make an excuse to leave the chamber, and Trella would remain. Alone with the petitioner, she would speak of household tasks while she studied each supplicant with care, observing how they changed their manner and expressions with her father absent.
In attending to her father, being a girl proved helpful. A man, even a young boy, would have been noticed and commented on. Men who would have hesitated to utter their thoughts in front of a young man spoke freely in front of the insignificant girl sitting behind her father, her eyes downcast. Women were of no consequence and could be ignored. Females might gossip and chatter among themselves, but most men paid little attention to their foolish words or ideas. A woman in a man’s house was as much his property as his table and bench, his tools or his weapons, and worthy of as little notice.
Ranaddi, aware of these “tricks” as he called them, started using Trella as well, allowing his advisor’s “attendant” to also wait on him, and remain in his most private chamber while he dealt with important affairs, arranged trades, and managed the lives of his people. Almost no one else knew of the role she played. Her mother, Damkina, distraught at her daughter’s “unwomanly” abilities, predicted no good would come of all this learning, and argued with her husband that Sargat spoiled their daughter. Alaric, her brother, understood that his sister was unlike other girls, but soon learned to keep the secret and to tell his friends little about his seemingly dullard sister.
In this way, Trella grew into a young woman, sitting on the floor beside her father, filling his water cup, peeling apples, fetching him whatever he commanded, a silent servant as unnoticed and unimportant as the room’s furniture. She wore plain and drab dresses that concealed her growing figure. Trella even avoided jewelry, the better to make sure she attracted as little notice as possible. Only with her immediate family and trusted servants did she put aside the scarf, comb out her long tresses, and let her smile reveal the even features of a comely young woman.
As she reached the age for marriage, neither Sargat nor Ranaddi felt any rush to marry her off. Her usefulness far outweighed any bride price she might fetch. Six months ago her first bleeding came, and the family’s women initiated Trella into the mysteries of sex and birth, and all the other secrets women held close to their bosoms. Afterwards, she continued to help her father as before, and he promised to find her a husband in the coming year, as soon as he could find a worthy, and wealthy enough, suitor.
Trella knew her father would miss her and her skills, but he understood a grown woman needed a husband. Most girls her age had already given birth to one child and were pregnant with the next. Still, Trella felt no rush to leave her father’s side. She loved him for being her father, but even more for letting her use her talents in his service. Helping him manage Carnax and its problems gave her great satisfaction.
Of course, some day soon she would have a husband and children of her own, but that thought held little interest for her. She felt no attraction to any of the eligible men in the village, and certainly no urge to bear their children. Her one dread was that she might be married to someone from another village, who would take her away from her father. Trella much preferred learning more about the administration of Carnax, a process she studied each day.
Postponing the day of her betrothal into the vague future, Sargat brought his daughter deeper into the mysteries of life. Trella learned all about the ways of the farmer, the artisan, the craftsman, the weaver and the tanner. When to schedule markets, when to plant the crops, how to draw water from the river. These and a hundred other details of daily life in the village elder’s house passed before her eyes. She even learned the mysteries of bronze, gold, and copper that few understood. At her father’s side, Trella grasped all the secrets of village and farm, along with the application of power necessary to rule both.
Soon there was little in Carnax that she didn’t know. And what she saw, what she learned, she remembered. Other people often forgot even the simplest of things, or made foolish mistakes, but not Trella. She seldom needed to hear or see anything more than once. After that, she could recall it from her memory at any time. Her worth to both her father and to Ranaddi grew. As it did, so too did their efforts to make sure others did not become aware of her talents.
Most of all, Trella learned about the ways of power, the ways to command men. To rule, a man had to be both ruthless and cunning. It helped to rule fairly and wisely, but Trella learned that, in the short term, such qualities as mercy or justice held little sway. Threats or even force were often required to maintain order over unruly, ignorant, or dishonest men. For every village elder, a dozen other traders or craftsmen yearned to take his place, and they grew ever more envious of the power he held over them. The ways of power remained both complex and uncertain. Nevertheless, Trella studied each example Sargat and Ranaddi encountered, and she often spent long hours each evening discussing such matters with her father. By the time she grew into a young woman, she understood almost as well as Sargat not only how to rule, but what it took to rule successfully.
Trella pushed all these thoughts from her mind, as her father stepped into the open space of the market and raised his hands to quiet the crowd. In a few moments, everyone fell silent, eager to hear Sargat’s words. The time for the execution had arrived.
“Villagers of Carnax,” he began, “Abbas, son of Fradmon, has been condemned to death for murdering Ramen, the son of our village elder. Let everyone see the justice of Ranaddi, our leader. Those who commit murder will be put to death. A life for a life. Let the justice of Elder Ranaddi be carried out!”
Shouts of glee rose, and the crowd pushed forward. Over a dozen of Ranaddi’s guards, all carrying spears, struggled to contain the press of bodies. Trella realized that many of the crowd wanted only to see a man put to death. Again she wondered why people rushed to abandon their daily toil to watch such things. No dignity remained for the victim. Indeed, Abbas sagged against his ropes, tears still streaming down his face while his lips moved soundlessly. Drool mixed with blood from biting his lower lip flecked his chin. Trella moved her eyes from the soon to be dead man and scanned the faces of the spectators.
Another man pushed his way through the gathering, shouldering his way to the front. She saw anger not quite concealed on his brow. Trella recognized him – Sondar, Fradmon’s steward, no doubt here to witness the deed and report back to his master. Fradmon, enraged at the death sentence given his son, had refused to attend, unwilling to face the crowd’s hostility and watch his son’s demise.
A guard stepped forward and drew his sword. Abbas, his mouth agape, stared in horror as his executioner. Blade at the ready, the guard glanced at Sargat, awaiting the command to strike.
“Kill him,” her father said, his voice firm.
“No! By the gods, don’t kill me . . . I beg you . . . spare my life . . . spare . . .”
The soldier thrust the sword home, a deep stroke that tore into the helpless victim’s stomach. Not a killing thrust, Trella saw, but a low stabbing that would ensure Abbas died slowly and screaming in pain. Ranaddi had demanded that much for his son’s death, and Sargat had instructed the one carrying out the sentence accordingly.
A shriek of agony rose over the market, and the crowd cheered their delight. Blood gushed from the murderer’s belly, some spurting onto the dirt at the executioner’s feet. Abbas’s head fell forward, and he stared at the great wound. As the guard withdrew his blade, more blood flowed from his stomach and dripped down his legs. His eyes glazed and his mouth hung open, as his life’s blood drained from his body.
At least the time for pain and fear had passed, Trella knew. She ran her eyes over the villagers again. As the victim died, every face revealed its true sentiment, the mystery of death removing for a few brief moments the mask that men wore to conceal their emotions. She saw Sondar shake his head in disgust and spit on the ground. Then, for a brief moment, a cold smile crossed his face, before he turned away from the spectacle. He forced his way through the crowd, disappearing amidst those still taunting the dying man. The steward would report the death and the manner of dying to his master.
Before long, Abbas stopped twitching, then the bleeding ceased as well. The executioner stepped close, and this time drove his sword deep into the dead man’s chest, so there would be no doubt that justice had been administered. When he withdrew his sword, he turned to Sargat and nodded.
“The execution is ended,” Sargat said, his solemn voice carrying over the chattering of the still restless spectators. “Return to your homes and your labors.” He stepped away, to report to Ranaddi the afternoon’s events.
The corpse sagged against the post, a public reminder of the penalty in Carnax for murder. The curious moved closer, to get a better look, some reaching out to touch the still-warm body that would remain there until sundown. Only then could Abbas’s family claim their son.
Trella wrapped her scarf closer over her face and, eyes downcast, followed two paces behind her father. When they reached home, she would have much to tell him.