Excerpt from At An Uncertain Hour

“So,” said Drezhe-va, leaning back on the stool to place her heavily-booted feet on the table, “is it really true that you’re the man who started this War? A thousand years ago?”

I took a drink from my wooden tankard, partly for the dryness in my mouth but mostly to give myself a few moments before I needed to answer.

“I suppose I did,” I said at last. “Although I prefer to think that the War was already there, waiting to happen. I was just…an insignificant spark that set it all off.”

Drezhe-va gave a soft laugh. “You know, I’d probably kill anyone else who described the Traveller as insignificant.”

I tried not to let the sigh out. Her tone was gently mocking, but I recognised the look in her eyes. Drezhe-va’s attraction towards me had been increasingly obvious for some time. She didn’t let it affect her judgement or behaviour, of course. She’d hardly have risen to General of the Ario-ne army if she were that easily distracted.

It wasn’t a new experience, but one that still made me uneasy. I’d never liked adulation, but it had been difficult to avoid during this last thousand years. How could I fail to be aware of my status when I’d several times had to stop cities from raising temples to me?

Over the centuries, officers in my army had sometimes fallen in love with me. In one or two cases, I’d let myself be seduced, and I think I’d dealt with the rest without breaking hearts. There had been occasional jealousy or disapproval, but I’d never allowed my love affairs to affect my command of the army.

Drezhe-va wasn’t particularly attractive. Square and muscular, her heavy-featured face might have been pleasant enough if it weren’t for the scar across the left side, cutting livid through her mahogany skin and giving her left eye a squint. Even so, the friendship between us—I trusted her with my life—could have tipped over into something more, but she aroused no lust in me.

“It’s not always clear who’s significant and who’s not,” I pointed out. “I’m not so modest that I don’t know how I affect things and people…” I shook my head to clear away the images of the millions of people whose lives I’d affected by ending them. “It’s just,” I added, “that there are forces, currents of history, far stronger than any one person.”

“I know all about that,” she snapped, her glare almost serious. “We’re not savages, you know. We’ve had a few historians at home, since the liberation: I’ve even read some of them.” She screwed up her twisted face in concentration. “What was it? No man affects history: only the people do that.” She snorted. “Always thought it was a pile of horse-shit.”

I think I managed to keep my face straight. “I’m sure they value your intellectual debate.”

She managed to maintain her glare for an instant longer, before we both collapsed laughing. After a while, though, Drezhe-va sobered and brooded, as she often did when action wasn’t needed. It was usually best to wait till she’d worked through it, so I used the interim to refill both our tankards. The beer from the Delta was good and usually quite strong, but we could both hold our drink. Here, at the end of the earth, the Delta seemed almost like home.

Glancing across the tent, I could see my two pages stealing surreptitious glances. I pretended not to notice, and they pretended not to realise I’d seen them. I’d given them the evening off, but they insisted that they had to make sure my equipment was ready for the battle tomorrow. That didn’t fool me, either: if it wasn’t ready by now, it never would be, and I’d caught their shared glance when I’d invited Drezhe-va to stay for a drink.

It didn’t matter, of course: there’d be no scandal for them to witness, and they couldn’t even hear us very clearly from their side of the tent. It was an absurd size, but my generals all insisted that the Commander-in-Chief must have the largest pavilion. I’d reluctantly agreed, provided that it doubled as the command-tent for the army.

“Traveller,” said Drezhe-va at last, uncertainly, “is it true that you…were sent by the gods? They tell all kinds of stories about you.”

I forced a smile, trying to lighten the mood and divert her questioning. “They tell a few,” I pointed out, “about the Warrior-Women of Ario-ne and what they do to men.”

Drezhe-va snorted with laughter: she always found this amusing. “Point taken. Still…” She frowned. “You must admit, though… A man who appears at exactly the right moment and spends a thousand years fighting her,” she gestured with her thumb, “well…wouldn’t you believe stories about gods?”

“Perhaps,” I admitted. Actually, I doubted that I would, but it’s different when you’ve lived so long. “Maybe gods did have something to do with it. It depends how much you ascribe to their influence, and how much you believe we make our own destinies. I do know that no god ever stood before me and said, Go and fight the Demon Queen.”

I noticed Drezhe-va wince. Like many recently-liberated peoples, most of her countrymen were reluctant to speak directly of their enemy.

“Have you ever met a god?” she asked, her voice hushed with awe.

“One or two,” I said cautiously. Actually, I’d met quite a few, but I preferred not to talk about gods too much, especially to someone who believed strongly in her own deities. The issues raised by their reality and relationships were too tangled and complex even for most of them to understand their own nature. I’d met at least three gods who claimed to have created the world and appeared to believe it.

It must have shown in my eyes that I didn’t want to talk about the subject. Drezhe-va shrugged. “So why did you come here?” she asked. “And where from?”

I closed my eyes. I’d have rather not thought about the past at all, not tonight. I needed to be rested for tomorrow; and there were so many memories, each setting off another. In theory, I could tell Drezhe-va to mind her own business, and she’d accept it.

But I couldn’t do that. One of the things I valued most about her was that she was always frank with me, and I knew I owed her the same.

I sighed, opening my eyes. “I came from the west,” I said. “From across the ocean. I’d spent most of my life there.”

Drezhe-va’s eyes widened. “It’s true, then?” she breathed, as incongruously childlike in her wonder as always when I spoke of strange tales. “There are other lands in the west? What are they like?”

I didn’t speak at first, wondering how to answer that question simply. The vast emptiness of the Amha-Kyokee Desert; the sumptuous splendours of the Lul Empire; the infinite variety of the Thousand Isles; the wild beauty of the far northern mountains where I was born; the eternal city of Hafdosu. How could I tell Drezhe-va what it was like, when it was so varied? When it was so long ago? Maybe everything had changed, in the thousand years since I’d last seen the west.

“Not so different from here,” I said at last. “Except for all the details, of course. There are countries and cities and wildernesses, kingdoms and republics and empires. People love and hate, fight and make money and die. They haven’t really got anything we haven’t.”

“Have they got her…the Demon Queen?” she added in a rush. Her eyes told me clearly that, if I could say it, so could she.

“No,” I admitted. “In all the time I was there, I never came across anything like the Demon Queen.” In a way, that wasn’t strictly true, of course, but it would do.