Wednesday, September 19, 2007


After a fire destroys his home and a vast stretch of surrounding forest, Nitsur, a Woneiyal drumspeaker, is captured and enslaved by a Kesset scouting/raiding party under the command of Akshadhen. The Kesset set the fire to clear the area of insect-borne diseases that are rife in the area and are very dangerous to the Kesset and their horses (this is why they don't normally cross the river).

Akshadhen takes an interest in Nitsur, who is the first of his people to be captured by the Kesset. On the trip back to Akshadhen's home, the city Ahon ken Tai, in the company of Ta'arane slaves and Kesset guards, Nitsur's command of Ta'arane improves and he masters the rudiments of Kesseten.

Nitsur lives as a slave with Akshadhen's family for several years and appears reconciled to his fate. (He will also treat us to an extended flashback about his early life and his apprenticeship as a drumspeaker.) Then a new slave arrives: Mafileo, a young woman suffering from traumatic muteness. No-one knows this, (in fact, no-one knows her name), but Mafileo is a dancer and formerly a priestess-acolyte of the Ta'arane religion.

Seeking help for Mafileo, Nitsur goes to the Temple of the Sun. The priestesses agree to help, but they have a hidden agenda; they need periodic sacrifices for their secret religion, and think they can make it look as though the two slaves ran away together. Unawares, Nitsur brings Mafileo to the temple, and the two are made participants in a rite which is supposed to end in their deaths. They figure out what's happening and, in the stress of the moment, the magic begins to happen. They escape. Mafileo has regained her speech, but she keeps this secret from everyone except Nitsur.

Nitsur alerts Akshadhen and his father to the secret practices of the temple. The Ahon ken Tai authorities raid the temple, killing many of the priestesses. This touches off riots in the city, as it turns out there are more followers of the secret religion than anyone thought. In the confusion, Nitsur and Mafileo escape the city.

They try to get back to Nitsur's people, but the forest has been subjected to periodic burning to try (mostly unsuccessfully) to convert it to pasture for the Kesset's herds. The Woneiyal have scattered, moving further up into the hills, in inaccessible terrain, or further south and west. Nitsur and Mafileo head that direction, dodging Kesset raiding parties and flash floods along the course of the river, crossing back and forth as they can. These dangers force them to practice the new form of magic they've discovered and learn to control it.

At some point, the travelers learn that Mafileo's home has been destroyed. Probably they pass near it. Mafileo takes the opportunity to treat us to an extended flashback of her own.

They are making for the Delta. The Delta is the region where the river meets the sea, and among the Ta'arane has profound significance as a religious sanctuary. It's also the farthest of the Ta'arane lands from the Kesset strongholds. Mafileo is sure the fugitives will be safe there. Nitsur isn't sure, he knows that the Kesset are under increasing pressure from the Locust People to the east. But the Delta is even less hospitable than the forest to the Kesset way of life, and besides, it's unburnable. (Though they see increasing evidence of drought.)

Along the way, they acquire a motley group of companions: displaced Woneiyal, escaped Ta'arane slaves, even a Kesset who had been stripped of his rights and condemned to slavery for crimes (unspecified at this point. He may have been falsely accused), but had escaped.

Arriving at the Delta, they find things are not as they had hoped. Dry-season drought and severe floods during the monsoons have made the Delta physically a less safe place to live; also, refugees are putting increasing pressure on the region's resources, as the Kesset of the more southern cities are raiding further and further afield. It's clear that it's only a matter of time before the Kesset come raiding into the Delta itself.

The priestess caste retains command, but clearly the fabric of society is strained. (Ta'arane society, in many ways, has never recovered from the plague and the Kesset conquest-- even in areas the Kesset have never occupied, the Ta'arane are fearful and demoralized.) They welcome Mafileo and the other Ta'arane refugees, but turn the Kesset and Woneiyal refugees, including Nitsur, away. Mafileo begs for them to be allowed to stay at least through the rains, when traveling will be very difficult; also, several members of the party are ill. The priestesses agree.

The onset of the monsoons brings devastating flooding to the Delta (again), though the rains are lighter than usual. The Ta'arane attribute the floods to the gradual failure of the flood-control and irrigation works of the ancient Ta'arane upstream, which have not been maintained by the Kesset. Nitsur and his fellow-travelers think the cause is the deforestation of the western hills. (They're probably both correct.)

Mafileo gets into increasingly acrimonious arguments with the senior priestesses about the fate of the non-Ta'arane refugees and about how to cope with the flooding. The priestesses are very conservative, but their traditional methods are no longer suited to the changing physical landscape. Tensions are brought to a head by the unexpected arrival of Akshedhen and a handful of others from Ahon ken Tai.

Ahon ken Tai has degenerated into clan feud/civil war. Akshedhen's family has been disgraced and stripped of most of their possessions and Akshedhen's father and family have been assassinated. With his last few breaths, Akshedhen's father told his son to leave the city; the Kesset have lost their way, and Akshedhen must find a new way. He and a few friends have made their way across the grasslands, helped by the light rains, but are all desperately ill (and their horses mostly dead).

Mafileo hates Akshedhen, who raped her when she was a slave. When she first sees him, she tries to kill him, but Nitsur prevents her. The priestesses are outraged and blame Nitsur for Akshedhen's presence, claiming that Nitsur is a spy for the Kesset and means to betray the secrets of the Delta. Mafileo fights a knife duel with the senior priestess and wins. She then pulls off what amounts to a coup: refugees of various races now make up a substantial portion of the Delta's population, and many long-time Delta Ta'arane are unhappy with the ineffectual leadership of the priestesses. Mafileo and her friends reveal the dance/drum magic, and explain that they can use it to protect the Delta from the Kesset and possibly from the floods. This makes them extremely popular.

Akshedhen has pretty much been overlooked in the excitement. Nitsur, who was fairly well treated as a slave (the Kesset saw him more as a curiosity) isn't hostile towards Akshedhen and sees to it that he's looked after. Akshedhen recovers from the fever, along with some of his companions.

The new Delta community buckles down and begins developing dance/drum magic and preparing to defend themselves. Newer refugees bring word that the Locust People are gathering in great numbers on the steppes, where the rains failed almost completely. Locust People scouts and small parties are beginning to appear on the plain, an indication of growing weakness on the part of the Kesset, who normally patrol against such incursions. There are rumors that the Kesset of the nearest city (not Ahon ken Tai) have made alliances with some of the Locust clans.

Akshedhen and his fellow Kesset make themselves useful in several ways. They are able to talk to Kesset refugees and slaves who were taken young and speak little or no Ta'arane. They make sense out of news about the Kesset and the Locust People. As a trained warrior, Akshedhen advises the Deltans about battle tactics. Most important, the Kesset warrior disciplines include mental training techniques which vastly enhance the effectiveness of the Deltans' new magic.

Somewhere in this section (probably in conversation with Nitsur), we'll get a flashback from Akshedhen about his childhood, his relationship with his father, and his warrior training.

The end of the book pits the Deltans against an army of mixed Kesset and Locust People from the nearest Kesset city.

Note to self: figure out if there's a way to turn off the spellchecker in Blogger. It's driving me crazy...

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