This is a tale from the Hinterland, and you may tell it the next time you find some knowing fool spreading the old lie that the people of the Hinterland have nothing but whatever ragged scraps they can scavenge from under the skirts of the Hegemony, that they are a people of borrowed gods and stolen trappings.
It is Tyja’s tale, and Tyja was a Hinterland girl for sure, and a good girl, too. You could tell it from the cream and roses in her face, forever shaded under the broad-brimmed hat that she wore even if there were no elder present to scold her for leaving it aside, and from her lean, tanned arms – lean from all the chores of her father’s holding and tanned from going bare-armed about her work from earliest spring until autumn’s last blaze.
Yet it is also Elni’s tale, Tyja’s sister Elni, who was neither quite so good nor quite so pretty, and came home one night with her nose broken. There had been Hegemonic traders in town that night, and one of them had thought that a girl who served ale with a saucy smile might consider another transaction. He had been both surprised and angered to find himself mistaken. Tyja straightened her sister’s nose and strapped it, and forbore from delivering the lecture Elni expected on the natural consequences of flirting in taverns. Whether the trader was tended so gently by his fellows is not recorded.
What is recorded is that next morning Elni’s bed was empty, though her broad-brimmed, sun-faded hat still hung forlornly from its peg. She left no note – she was well enough educated after the manner of the Hinterland, but writing was not a skill that her parents valued – but she sent a message when she could. She had abandoned the illusory protection of reputation, she told the scribe, and would not pretend a propriety she had no intention of acting. Therefore she had gone bareheaded into the world, to make what she could from men who would only use force if she did not consent to be paid.
Tyja came home once, and she was welcomed with caution and cordiality to the kitchen that had once been her mother’s realm, and belonged now to Elni. The family ate together awkwardly, but when the menfolk found that there were matters that needed their attention in the yard, and the children had been sent on harmless errands, Elni brought out a jug of something more warming than wine and Tyja began to talk. She talked of cities and ships, of silks and fine linens, she talked of fashions and music and of amusements her sister could barely understand, and, when at last the liqueur had done its work, she talked of men.
She had known every kind of man, and she had every kind of tale. Some she told with fondness and some she told with mockery, but many she told with an odd, strained detachment, as if she had taught herself to regard them as amusing bagatelles. In one she described hiding under a table whilst three men fought for her favour, and stepping lightly over their broken bodies after they had fought one another to a standstill. The liqueur was not strong enough to mask Elni’s distaste for these tales, and by the time the men returned they were talking once more of lace patterns and of the new dyes that traders were bringing from distant shores.
The men were working by the time Tyja rose, and Elni ruled her kitchen alone. By the time the men returned Tyja had gone, and the fat purse she had brought from the Hegemony had gone also. Elni said that Tyja had always meant to return to her own life and her own place, which was perhaps true, in its own way. She said nothing of tears, but I am certain that Tyja wept, on that second parting, for what belongs to the Hinterland folk is theirs alone, and cannot be bought, but even a tavern whore might pine for it.
Yes, I’m afraid I’m still lost and wandering amongst my Khyrans and Tormabens. Here’s a tale from my travels, obliquely inspired by the MidWeek Blues Buster (as ever, follow the link for great tales inspired by the same prompt).