Strangers and Guardians

Transcriber’s note: This was the most complete of the manuscripts left by my grandfather. It’s also one of my favourites, for the way the setting and story unfold. Furthermore, this is the last story that I’ll be posting — this and the other four were all that could be found of my grandfather’s writing.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This text is © the estate of the late David Godfrey Stephenson and is reproduced here with permission. Do not reproduce this text in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the copyright holder.

Strangers and Guardians

The Lady of Riversmeet pondered, reclining in the great litter, as her bearers, eight well-muscled young men, carried her onwards and upwards towards Hilltop. How was she to reward the villagers of Hilltop? How could she reward those who let her people sleep in peace? How to reward those who had saved her from the shame of calling the Enforcers? There were Strangers in Hilltop, the first in any village of the Marketholders of Riversmeet – had they made a difference? If so, what sort of reward could show approval of what the Strangers had done – of whatever magic they had used?

It was at times like this that she missed Amt. She had married him for his looks and the connections of his Family, but he had proved an astute man of business, quite the sharpest in the Western Hills.

Money would not be right. It would not be a lasting reward; silver could not make up for wounds. Besides, as Amt would have pointed out, there was no money in her treasury. A summer of robbery by the Hunters of the Night had left her villages short for the winter. As Marketholder, she had had to hold extra fairs, to bribe merchants to come, and to lend money for her Clients to buy. Even so, they would have a hard winter, living on grain, on poverty rations.

Ah! Here was the fork in the path. It was the custom of Hilltop that some humble, but worthy, man of the village should come to meet their Lady here, to greet her, and to lead the way upwards. A tall figure waited, moved forward, raised an arm in salute, but then seemed to come apart.

Her retinue started to murmur; a muttering of charms and incantations against strange magic. She felt the litter shift as her bearers settled it more firmly on their shoulder pads; whether to have a hand free to clutch at amulets or luck-pieces, or to make the Good Sign, she could not see.

Then she realised what was before her. Hilltop had sent a man – no, the man – of the Strangers. That was fitting; the Strangers were Client to one of the Families of the village. But he had come as a Borne One, despite his lowly standing. He had come as a Borne One without a litter. He came with one bearer only, of the Others of the Strangers. He had now climbed down. This bearer went on all fours with the man on his back, as might a playful adult with a child. Yet it – he? – had not shuffled along, but strode freely with both arms and legs, as one who moved thus from habit.

The Lady had heard much of the Strangers – women, men and Others. That they had been settled on this world by the Star People as, generations before, her own Sort had been brought across the spaces between the stars. Yet the Others of the Strangers were Aliens more alien even than the Star People. It was for the sake of their others that the Strangers had been brought to this world.

She was greeted most ceremoniously; the man bent forward from the waist, making elaborate flourishes with his hat, and flourishes as elaborate with his words, although he said no more than conventional greetings. He spoke with a strange accent, and used words and phrases showing he had learnt their tongue away in the north, yet his speech was fluent.

He was heavily costumed from head to foot, not in the simple garments of clean white linen that it was the Lady’s pride that her servants and porters should wear, but in highly coloured, though rather grubby, clothes of a new fabric; the garments of a Magician? The Lady had looked over his outfit with care. In her markets, cloth for sale to the hill villages was a staple of the trade; as a judge of cloth, at least, she had always outdone Amt. This was thick, but soft, and took dye well. It must be woven from game-cotton, the yarn made by the Strangers with the help of the Others.

She had looked carefully at the Bearer, as well. He must be of the meat-people, as many said the Others of the Strangers were. Those who said otherwise must be wrong. He was too substantial to have been conjured from the spirit world, yet somehow was neither sized nor shaped to be a woman or a man transformed by magic. Meat-people big enough to carry a man were not found in today’s forests, but hunters’ tales from the past told of such creatures. Nevertheless, to command one would draw upon magic. She must be careful.

The greetings over, the man climbed back on his bearer and turned to lead the way upward. There were ribald remarks from her bearers when it was seen that his bearer had a long plume of black hair sprouting from the backside. Those were for her. Young men were chosen as litter-bearers not only for their muscles, but also for their looks. Everyone knew that each of the bearers of a wealthy widow cherished the hope that he might be chosen to work “under the pole by day and under the quilt by night”. Amt had been good in bed, but it was not his lovemaking she missed so much as the talk at the end of the day. He had had sage and pithy comments on the happenings of the day.

Shaking off these thoughts, the Lady looked forward, over her musicians, to the figures at the head of the procession. The man was tall; she had had to sit up straight, in a litter at shoulder height, to look down on him. He was slender, though, lacking in bone and muscle. If all his Sort were like him, it would need relays of them to carry the great litter throughout a long day. It was not, then, by his own strength that the Hunters of the Night had been beaten; he had had Others to help. His bearer was plainly strong, but did not look to be of a fighting sort. It was said that these Others came in many shapes and sizes; some, no doubt, could fight.

No! That was wrong. She remembered how, as Marketholder of Riversmeet, she had held a special court so that the kidnapped girls, made concubines and servants by force, could ask satisfaction for their grievances. They had told of life in the lair of the bandits. They said that the Hunters of the Night had come back from Hilltop battered, bruised, bleeding and furiously angry. The men of Hilltop had come out with axes, mattocks and even a few hunting spears. They had hit out so fiercely that the bandits had not been able to try to break into the houses, nor even had a chance to loot the gardens.

That had been quite different from the bad hunting of other nights. The Hunters of the Night had accepted it as the luck of the hunt if doors, and outward-facing windows, had been so strongly barred and stoutly defended that they could not force their way into the houses, but had to be content with robbing the gardens. After all, in a good night’s hunting, the gang broke in, and rampaged through at least one courtyard. They took what they fancied from the rooms around, and smashed what they did not. Then they returned in triumph, laden with loot, often with a captive girl or two. But this, from Hilltop, the robbers reckoned, went beyond all decency and fairness.

That morning, they were still indignant about the men of Hilltop, as they dressed their hurts. Suddenly, the men of Hilltop were with them again, rushing into the village from all sides, still ready to fight! That was the end of the story of the Hunters of the Night, except in her Court. The girls’ complaints were damning. There were precedents enough for her sentences; the ringleaders to be drowned decently; the rest to be beaten until the blood ran, then sent home to live out their lives in disgrace. With the scars of shame on their backs, not even the poorest of Families would accept them as husbands for their daughters and granddaughters.

Hilltop was different. There were no precedents to help her to decide a reward for them.

They had been climbing a narrow path across a wooded hillside. Her bearers were beginning to grunt and puff, and even her musicians missed a note now and again as they had to take an extra breath. Now there came a clatter from ahead; the guide had climbed down from his bearer, and both were scrambling round a steep corner. Her musicians followed, each clutching fife, hautbois or serpent closely to his chest. Then it was her turn. Her bearers eased the litter round the corner, to sharp commands from their leader, and a muttered curse as they let it sway while changing grip. As they came round she rewarded them with words of praise and encouragement.

Despite its name, Hilltop lay in a high-sided valley. It sat ahead in the autumn sun, with fruit-trees clustered round the houses, gardens lining the path, and the noise of a stream from a tree-lined gully. As they came out of the trees, the musicians piped up again, her bearers steadied themselves as they swung into a regular stride, and they swept forward into the village with the retinue of servants and train of porters straggling after.

The houses of the village were spaced round a square of earth trodden to dust. Under the trees in front of each house stood its Head, with the Family behind her; sisters, daughters, nieces and granddaughters, all with their husbands, and the children and unmarried youngsters clustered around. As her musicians finished their last tune, one of the Heads of Families stepped forward and began a speech of welcome. To the Lady of Riversmeet, these occasions were commonplace; what was said was the same. What was to be seen was a greater matter. The houses were smaller than those of the valley villages, let alone her own great rambling mansion. Nevertheless, they were well built, with firm stone walls and thick thatch that looked proof against the worst of the hill weather. The woman making the speech was not in front of the largest house. Gossip had led the Lady to expect this; two Families were rivals for headship of the village. The older woman with the biggest house must be Hana, present head of the village. She would give the speech of invitation, before the feast was held in her house. Nykali, head of the rival Family, was making the speech of welcome. A Family of the Strangers, if Family it could be called – a woman, her husband, a baby and a crowd of Others – were her Clients. By this, gossip said, Nykali challenged Hana, who held by old ways.

Meanwhile, it was as well that she had brought two cooks, each with their own choice of delicacies, spices and relishes. For these feasts, it was her part to supply seasonings to transform the everyday foods of the villagers, and to add such rare dishes as befitted a banquet. As a breeze curled through the village, the Lady sniffed carefully, hoping to catch the scent of cooking above the usual village smells. She caught an unfamiliar savoury odour that awoke memories. Again she sniffed, thinking back. Of course, that would be meat!

If they were cooking meat already, it must be in huge chunks. She remembered the hard winter of her childhood, when one of the last of the big meat-people, one of the last of the great forest elks, had strayed down to Riversmeet. That had had long, slow cooking. The greatest delicacy of this banquet, then, might be meat – not sparrows grilled on a spit, leaving a mouthful of bones, nor even conies with bones to be carefully sucked – but meat in great gobbets. Her mouth watered. It would make her part in the feast look small, but it would be worth it.

Nykali was drawing to her close. Nothing in her speech called for change in the words the Lady had readied. Just a few words – the litter-bearers had stood long enough – thanking the village for the welcome, and praising the valour which was the occasion of her visit. At her finish, the great litter was lowered, and the bearers stood stretching as she twitched her robe into pace and stepped out.

With the formal welcome over, her servants could attend to their duties. Each cook, with his scullion and porters bearing his gear behind him, went off to a different house, where part of the Kitchen Court would have been set aside. As she expected, it had been planned that the Lady should not just eat, but also sleep, in the house of Hana. The porters with her bedding followed her maid. In a poor hill village, even the best bedding was of coarse fibre, with palliasses packed with dried grass or fern, and quilts with chaff. Her quilt was of the finest linen, stuffed with thistledown, and her mattress was filled with cotton.

She had spare bedding, too, for the young men hurt in the fighting. The Lady had asked that she might visit them, so Ham the Hunter, son-in-law to Hana, presented himself to take her to the hurt. His trade had brought him the task of commanding in the fighting. She asked where the man of the Strangers was.

Oh, Bart will have gone up to his house. He will be seeing after his bearer. Young Sim will take you up there later.”

And Ham took the lead into Hana’s house, through the Great Court, where some of the younger ones of the Family were awkwardly setting out benches and tables for the feast, past the Hall, where the Lady’s steward, tight-lipped and set of face, was overseeing preparations for her to dine with the notables of the village and her upper servants. From the Kitchen Court came the smell of scorching and the sound of raised voices; the Lady knew better than to interrupt cooks at their work. Along a dusty, sour-smelling passageway, they came to the room with the hurt men. The Lady spoke all the proper words, to little effect. The young men remained listless and unspeaking, even when her porters unloaded the softer bedding.

Then to Nykali’s house; Great Court and Hall were both empty and silent. There was silence in the Kitchen Court, also, but such a savoury smell came out that the Lady peeped discreetly in. Her cook, aided by his scullion, was at work in a corner, doubtless on one of his celebrated desserts. Some of the Family were at work, too, quietly and deftly chopping and slicing, or tending the big iron cauldrons in which madura porridge and vegetable stews were cooked. But her eye was most taken by two lads beside a strong fire, raptly turning spits carrying great carcasses, bigger by far than coney or bush-hog, larger even than wood-buck. Tonight’s feast was sure to be good eating!

On down a well-swept passage, enlivened by joking about her litter-bearers from girls decking themselves for the feast and the dancing afterwards. Beyond, in a bright, airy room looking into a sunlit court, were more of the hurt men, with cuts stitched and bound up, or broken limbs splinted. Her quilts were not needed; each man was covered with soft sheets woven from game-cotton, save only the one who was most sorely hurt, who huddled, speechless, facing the wall, clutching to himself what she was assured was a feather-filled quilt!

The others were sitting up. They answered her readily, talking of the fighting and boasting of the blows they had struck. The Lady heard the full story. How the first warning had been given by one of the Others of the Strangers, running shouting downhill with his man. This had summoned the guard to rouse all the menfolk of the village. Of the confused fighting in the darkness; men blundering into one another, yelling “Hilltop” to tell friend from foe, striking out frantically with whatever tool they carried. And from two of them, the long walk in the growing morning light, over the hills into deep forest. Then an unexpected rush into the hutted clearing that was the lair, and a final battle with a desperate handful taken by surprise, the last of the Hunters of the Night.

As she watched the girls tending them, the Lady realised that the real reward for these young men would come from the girls of Hilltop. Neither mothers, nor even grandmothers, would be able to withhold consent to a marriage which would bring such a hero into the Family. She, herself, ought to give each of them some token, but it need only be small – a piece of silverware? – a goblet? – no, a clasp for a robe or cloak, with a suitable inscription or design. That could be worn on many occasions; it would give the wearer a chance to talk of his valour. She must speak with her silversmith.

When she left, two youngish men were waiting meaningfully. Ham presented them as Wrob the Weaver and Hal, Spinster, both by their speech from the north. These two took her to a newly built work-court. In rooms round, she was shown first what was plainly Wrob’s pride and joy: a great loom with cloth patterned in a complex check being woven from coloured yarns, which Wrob told her were of game-cotton. Then Hal showed kick wheels turning spindles at which young men, carefully posed and painstakingly singing as they span undyed yarns. These yarns, again, she was told were of game-cotton. Wrob explained that they had a wash-place and dye-house downstream, away from the village because of the waster-water and the smell.

Hal told her carefully, to grins from the lads at the spindles, that it took many spinsters to keep the loom busy with yarn. He had marked down a spot for a dam and water-wheel, so that the stream could turn their spindles. Unhappily, such things needed the work of skilled artificers, whose price was more than the Family could raise. The Lady was careful to keep all feeling from her face as she listened. This might be the reward Nykali’s Family hoped for, but to her it did not have the right tone. Her first thought had been that Amt would not have approved.

All that the Lady had been shown could have been made within the Family. Nevertheless, they would not have worked so without clear hope of recompense; in these hill villages most Families had their time taken up growing enough to eat. She asked about markets. Yes they sold their cloth in her fairs; and they paid her market tax too, in good coined silver, at the same rate as clothiers from the north!

The Lady realised that she had been remiss. It had been their custom for Amt and herself to go through the returns for market tolls and tallages together. Amt could follow the fortunes of a village, sometimes even of a Family, from the papers alone. She must take that up again, instead of leaving it to her clerks and scriveners.

When they left the house, the Lady quietly asked how it was with the Family of Hana. Ham replied that she would not touch the Strangers in any way. He alone, because of his trade, was permitted to cut up carcasses and cure hides that they sold to other Families.

In part, this is real fear; she finds the Strangers just too uncanny. It is also resentment that her despised grandson, Daft Sim, brought them here. He was held to be weak-minded because as a lad he spent so much time staring after flying things, and often had a creeping thing about him. Yet it was through his fascination with meat-people that he brought the Strangers here, so earning his marriage to Nykali’s eldest granddaughter. Now he is Daft no longer, but Young Sim. Hana, I think, is too proud to admit that she misjudged him. But other Families now see us as going down as Nykali rises. So ours is not a Family young men wish to marry into, nor from which they are welcome as husbands.”

The Lady asked if there was a likelihood of real trouble. Ham took the point at once.

After seeing the fate of the Hunters of the Night, our young men will not turn bandit, to kidnap the girls they want. Yet they resent having to hep their mothers and sisters till Family plots, even in a late season like last spring. Gardening is not for a young man; hunting or craftwork is the way to prove himself.”

The Lady agreed. She knew that these hills were hunted out, with no game, no meat-people of any size, remaining. And she had not thought it possible that there could be craftwork in this hill country.

Hana is looking for ways for the young men of her family to leave. She will be asking you to take them into service, or to speak for them to other Marketholders, or to merchant Families looking for porters and tallymen. If all else fails she will sell the best south. There are chances for bright young men with the wealthy merchant Families along the Great River. If they cannot attain to marriage with a poor relation, there will be warm and willing maid-servants. And their price might help find husbands for our girls.”

The Lady considered. She could help Hana’s young men into good service, but that was no reward. It was owed because, as her Clients, the Family of Hana had always bought and sold at her fairs, and always paid market tolls and tallages to the Marketholders of Riversmeet. She had done as much for other Families fallen on hard times. No, here was no solution to her problem, Amt would have agreed.

Ham spoke again, in a cheerier tone.

Here comes Young Sim. He will take you to the Strangers.”

Young Sim was not as young as his name; older in accomplishment than in years, perhaps. He pointed out a path between houses, towards the head of the valley. As they went, the Lady asked in what manner the Strangers were Clients to Nykali’s Family; up here there were surely no fairs?

No, it is not by trade that we profit from the Strangers, but from our land.”

Sim broke off, as they came out of the valley, to point uphill.

There is Bart’s house.”

The head of the valley was so unlike anything she knew that the Lady lost the thread of Sim’s speech. The house was one long, low building, thatched and walled like the village houses, but quite unlike the huddle of roofs around courtyards that was a house to her. And its surroundings: a set of plots all neatly enclosed either by stone walls or by a living fence contrived of scrub; and not one plot growing the bushes of a fallow! Some bore the familiar mess of harvest’s end, while others were covered with short herbage.

Sim was still speaking. “…the bushes were man-high, with stems thumb-thick, we were able to clear a plot for three crops – two mixed, then madura as the soil wore out and filled with weeds. Leave the bushes to grow two men high, and we could grow five, six or even seven crops. Now, instead of resting under bushes, the worn-out gardens go to Bart on lease, his – some of his Others eat the weeds, or some plots he tills to feed them and himself.”

The Lady interrupted, in surprise that a man should till the soil; was there no woman in his Family?

Yes, but it is the Others who are his task; by their help he cultivates. His –” Sim paused; it seemed to the Lady that he was initiate enough in whatever magic there was to use the Strangers’ names for the Others. “The bearer whom you saw – she is one of a pair. Together, they pull tools by which Bart cultivates. When the lease is ended, the three together make a seed-bed, so that we take back a plot fit to plant, clear of weeds and refreshed by night-soil from the Others.”

The Lady supposed that was fitting. Plants were the work of women, as meat-people of men. That might be so even if men’s’ work was no longer hunting, but in some way commanding meat-people. In all the work of growing food, preparing the soil was the hardest task. If a man could do that, no wonder men of this Sort grew the food; though, if men fed the Family, what was there left for a woman to do? But the profit from this lease to Nykali’s Family; that, reckoned the Lady, would have to be in game-cotton. She asked.

Sim glanced round, stepped to an open framework that seemed to act as a door, and pointed:

There! The long fine hairs on those; that is game-cotton. Now it is thick against winter, but come spring, Bart will cut it short. That will be the first harvest of the year.”

The Lady’s gaze followed Sim’s outflung hand. Others, smaller than the bearer, but still on all fours, were scattered over an enclosed plot, biting at the short herbage. Each was white and fat – or was that a thick layer of game-cotton? She was disappointed, but reluctant to say so. Ever since she had heard that game-cotton grew on the backs of Others, she had had a vision of living creatures with green buds bursting out of their bodies, to ripen into great balls of cotton, ready for plucking and ginning in due season.

She asked, seeking reassurance, whether they were meat-people?

Yes, and good eating, too,” answered Sim, with a grin. “Two of them are cooking on spits in our kitchen.”

And he led the way ahead. At a door of the house stood the man who had been sent to greet her, and another Stranger, in garments more like the Lady’s, who must be his wife. With them were two more of the Others, another Sort of meat-people; knee-high, covered in longish hair of black set off with white, and pointed in nose and ears. They greeted her with loud, incoherent cries. As she made the Good Sign, Bart spoke to them in his own tongue.

Sit, Thor! Sit, Spot! Good dogs!”

They folded themselves up, subsiding into silence as they did so. The man changed to her speech:

Thou art right welcome, Lady, to salute the heroes of our victory.”

The Lady gaped at him; as she shut her mouth, Sim spoke, pointing to each of the Others in turn.

Have you not heard how Spot walked guard with his master by night, and Thor, here, tracked the bandits to their lair?”

The Lady murmured that she thought Ham, as a Hunter, might have mad some skill in tracking? At this the wife broke out:

Ham is no’ a hunter, nobbut a trapper of conies and house-rats; his canniest art is netting sparrows gleaning the stubbles. He could no’ follow a row of bean-plants across a plot!” Her speech, the Lady noticed, was even more of the north than her man’s.

Astonished at this outburst, the Lady looked at Sim. He explained, eyes lighting up with recollection, how, at the village meeting Hana had counselled caution concerning the Hunters of the Night. “She said that we must trust to the strength of our stone walls. Ham the Hunter would be the man to arrange how our doors were to be guarded.

Then Bart stood up to declare that it was all very well for us to leave our vegetables to be stolen, but over his dead body would they have his sheep! He and his dogs would stand guard all night, alone if need be!

Hana replied that we had no sheep. Why should we concern ourselves over a Stranger’s meat-people? Let him guard his sheep with the magic by which he managed them!

Bart answered, ‘It is written in the Sacred Book of my people that a good guardian of sheep will give up his life for his sheep. Were not women and children far more than sheep? Let the men of Hilltop chance their lives for their Families!’

Men of the other Families had heard what the Hunters of the Night might do. They agreed with Bart. Hana was shamed into having Ham set up a night guard. Ham took the task seriously. He found, cleaned and sharpened his old hunting spears. He encouraged the other men to find a tool – axe, adze, mattock, spade or pick – to sharpen for fighting. He remembered how, as a young man, he had been taught to use a hunting spear. He filled a sack with the dried grass Bart feeds to his Others in winter, and put it up on a pole, with a big tui-tuber for a head, so that men could practice blows with their chosen tool. Then he arranged watches for each night.

Nevertheless, it was Spot who gave the first alarm.”

The Lady looked again the the Others at Bart’s feet. Something about their pointed faces, unlike the long face of the bearer, hinted at a fighting Sort. She asked if they had fought.

Bart replied:

Old Thor stood guard in the house. I doubt young Spot really bit anyone, but leaping about and calling, he put more than one bandit off his stroke. His Sort have keener noses than either of ours; that is how he knew first of the coming of the Hunters of the Night.”

The Lady nodded. She could well believe that a gang of young men, removed from the care of mothers and aunts, would give a keen nose warning of their coming.

Thor I had had taught to follow the trail of natural scent everyone, human or meat-person, leaves. I had been warned that, alone among a people hungry for meat…”

Bart’s words died in confusion. The Lady told him briskly not to be afraid to hint to her that there were thieves among her people. Did she not hold court to right their wrongs?

Sim took up the story.

At dawn, when we had picked up dead and wounded, Ham would have led us in celebration of having driven off the Hunters of the Night; but Bart said that now was not yet the time to rejoice. He had a dog that could track the bandits to their lair. Let us follow them, and take the chance to put an end to them once and for all. So that we did.”

The Lady asked by what magic these things were done? Bart answered:

Lady, hast thou not heard the saying of the Star Folk: there is no magic, only technology?”

The Lady had heard this bleak saying of the Star People. She did not quite believe it; to her, technology was just the word the Star People used for their magic, for their machines.

When the Star Folk found our world, they reckoned us as a technological folk,” continued Bart, surprising the Lady, who knew that her own Sort were considered civilized, but not technological, by the Star People. “But not one of the machines we showed them, not even those in which men had journeyed to our moon, impressed them. They had finer. This alone,” he made a sweeping gesture including both the dogs sitting obediently at his feet, and the sheep eating grass on the plot beyond, “and all that flowed from it; this technology alone scunnered them. They had seen naught like it on any world they had visited. And yet this was the way of our forebears, even before they had invented machines.”

Shaken by the feeling of being with a Sort who had astonished even the Star People, and yet with a sense of greater indebtedness than she had known, the Lady could do no more than ask Bart what he most wanted. The answer was prompt and firm.

More of my own folk here, Lady. It is not good for bairns to grow up alone among a strange Sort, and men together can fettle more than men apart. I have all the land I can use, but the lesser Families of the village have land they would lease to my Sort, but for Hana.”

The Lady acknowledged this. It, too, was not the answer to her problem. She, herself, could not cause more of the Strangers to come. The thought caused her to take another look round. Back along the house, the long face of the bearer looked over a half-door. Sim bent over, caressing the dogs. Downhill, the sheep were still eating grass on their plot. She breathed in deeply, to ask the Sort of the bearer, and caught the smells of the Strangers. They were different from the village smells, but not so different – not different in nature. They were not like the harsh machine smells of the Star People on that never-to-be-forgotten visit.

Magic or technology, or merely habit and custom, whatever was between the Strangers and their Others was not like anything of the Star People. It was something her people could live with. Sim was plainly quite at home with them, and they had benefited all the village. However it had been done, the Strangers had made their Others something more than meat-people. Already, it seemed that some of her tax money began on the backs of sheep. It was then that the idea came.

As they went downhil, she turned it over in her mind, looking, as Amt had taught, for the difficulties. It would be a unique reward for a unique deed. It would reward all the village. It would show her approval of the Strangers; in time, more of them would come, Hana or no Hana. And they would not come only to Hilltop, as other villages saw how Hilltop prospered. If the other villages were to ask for the same privilege, as might happen in time, they could be told to go to do as Hilltop had done. As a singular privilege, it would be jealously guarded by the people of Hilltop; there would be little burden on her market-masters. As for the revenue, some would be lost at first, but it would grow from the greater buying and selling; more Strangers would mean more game-cotton.

Both the villagers and her servants and porters were gathering outside Hana’s house, ready for the speeches. Hana began, saying in her speech of invitation what was said in every speech of invitation. Next came the Lady’s reply. She gave the usual thanks for Hana’s invitation, followed by praise for the courage and determination of the men of the village. Then the Lady of Riversmeet proclaimed the reward she had for Hilltop:

I will remit from henceforward all market-tolls, tallages and taxes in any fair of the Marketholders of Riversmeet, on the sale by the people of Hilltop of all cloths made from game-cotton grown, spun, dyed and woven within the limits of the village of Hilltop.”

Amt would have approved.

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