The teaching of history is forbidden in Xessus under the laws of Riadsala’s Mercy. Many of the children have never heard the word. When the stranger from the south arrived in Nampech on the Mindsday before Midsummer, and found the mayor sympathetic to the revolution, he was allowed to take a class. Kalla, a Nampech girl in her last year of school, remembers.

•  •  •  •  •

Tambor and the teachers of the junior classes marshalled everyone into one big class, arranged in their tribes – Fire on the right, then Air, Mind in the centre as usual, then Water and Earth. It wasn’t the right day for everyone to be together, from four years old all the way to nearly sixteen. Tambor held up a hand and waited. The buzz of chat faded. In a moment there was only the gentle sigh of the breeze in the poplar trees and the hum of insects. Kalla sat down beside her friend Saibin.

‘Children, our visitor has come from Egator…’

Tambor’s voice was drowned by a volley of exclamations and questions. He held up his arms again and waited for quiet.

‘He has not come from the moon, children. He has come from Egator to see that we are teaching our children properly. We teachers are going to leave you in his charge this afternoon. We hope that you will show him what a good job we are doing.’

Tambor smiled as if he had made a joke, but the way the four teachers walked away – stooped shoulders, shaking heads – told Kalla that this was serious. She wondered why anyone in the capital city should worry about their classes.

A new hubbub started on the right among the Airheads, then spread to everyone else. A man was walking from the old meeting hall on the east of the Space, a man they had never seen before. He wore a white tunic, as most of the children did, pulled over the head and belted at the waist, with short sleeves over strong, hairy arms. He carried a walking staff which reached up to his shoulders. His tunic came down to his knees, and he wore a pair of long black boots which covered the whole of his shins. Craning his neck to peer over the others’ heads, Kalla could see that they were dusty and worn, as if from long journeys. Journeys longer than anyone in the town was permitted to make.

As he approached, the murmuring of the Air children changed into recognisable words, repeated across the crowd so that in a few moments everyone was staring at the stranger’s hands: ‘no tattoos’, they were saying. They had never seen such a thing.

The stranger stopped when he reached the middle of the front row and stood, leaning on his staff, watching them silently through cool grey eyes. He smiled, appearing to be enjoying their astonishment. Kalla could not judge exactly how old he was: his short beard was grey, and his hair had receded from his wrinkled forehead. He was clearly not a young man. He waited for silence.

‘Good afternoon.’ Kalla noticed that his voice sounded a little different from the way the townspeople would say those words. Kalla studied his face: his complexion was darker than was usual for the men of the town, even those who worked outside. She wondered if brown skin was normal for southerners. He was taller and thinner than most men of the town. Still, there surely must be different shapes of people down south.

‘As your teachers have explained, I have come from Egator to see what you are learning here in Xessus. I have been watching your lessons this morning, and you all seem to work hard.’ That explained Tambor’s distracted glances towards the meeting house.

The man paused, running his eyes up and down the rows. Kalla wanted him to decide that they were well taught. She hoped no-one would do anything to get the teachers in trouble. Tambor was getting old and forgetful, but he told good stories and was kind and fair. Kalla saw people nodding to each other seriously, silently agreeing to do their best.

‘I have talked to your teachers about numbers, fitness and medicine. I would like to ask you about some other things to see what you know. What about geography?’ The children looked at each other, puzzled. Kalla could see that everyone else was as baffled as she was. What was geography? She didn’t want to let Tambor down, but it was clear no-one had any idea what the man was talking about. This was the first test, and they were going to fail it. He studied the rows of children, his eyebrows raised. Some of them tried to look intelligent, some stared at their feet. The man nodded, as if this was what he’d expected.

‘Very well, I will explain. For example, take the mountains.’ He half-turned and swept his arm through the air from left to right, pointing to the north, beyond the farmers’ fields and the low hills near the town, indicating the distant white-tipped peaks, the wall that was the backdrop to all their lessons. His outstretched arm came to rest pointing at a tall, isolated spire directly north, standing higher than anything on the crest to the west of it. ‘What is that one called?’ The children looked around, looked at each other, looked blank. The teacher ran his eyes over the class. He pointed to Ombor, who sat higher than the surrounding children. ‘You, tell me, have you never talked about the names of the mountains?’

Ombor looked unhappy at being picked on and just shrugged. ‘What’s the point of giving it a name? It’s just a mountain, that’s all. They’re all just mountains.’

‘All right…’ The teacher tapped a finger against his lips, thinking of another question. He turned to the north-west and pointed. They followed his arm and looked across the flat ground, past the low buildings that topped the edge of the space, on over the rising ground to another hill in the far distance, just visible to the right of the last tree in the line. The man’s voice was quiet, neutral, as if the question wasn’t important. ‘What is the name of that town?’

Again, everyone looked blankly at each other and back at him. Were they supposed to know this? Tambor had never mentioned it. The teacher clicked his tongue, but he sounded amused rather than cross. ‘Come now, children. It is a place like this one, full of people like you. You could walk to that town in a day. Why does no-one know the name of it?’ He spread his arms wide, appealing for an answer from anyone.

Kalla felt her breathing speed up – not quite as much as it would when running uphill, but definitely above the normal rate for sitting down in class. Maybe the other children had never even wondered what that town was called, but she sometimes asked her father questions like that, and her father always brushed her off or lost his temper. Even when she went to the border with the donkeymen, they didn’t have a name for the people on the other side. It was clear to Kalla that these were things that no-one talked about because everyone knew that they were not supposed to. She didn’t know how everyone learned this, because the subject was never discussed; but, somehow, it was understood. Why was the man from Egator asking the children to say these things out loud?

Sitting cross-legged on the solid ground in the middle of the Space, she had the exact sensation that she had felt looking down from the top of a tall tree. Her father once told her that someone who’s afraid of heights is not really worried about falling: the truth is that they want to see if they can fly, and they’re frightened they might be tempted to jump. Kalla wasn’t sure her da was right, but the same dizzy anticipation of the drop was in her head and in her stomach now. She didn’t know why, but she was sure that this lesson was leading somewhere new and dangerous. It might be like jumping out of a tree, but maybe they could fly.

Akula put her hand up. Kalla studied her, taking in the expression on her face – as if she was thinking very hard, working something out as fast as she could, trying to solve a puzzle. The teacher nodded to her. She stood up and fixed her eyes on him. ‘Sir, we cannot walk there in a day. We cannot walk there at all. We can no more go to that town than we can go to the top of that mountain. So we don’t have a name for the mountain and we don’t have a name for the town.’

The teacher nodded again, and gave her a cool, searching look. ‘Thank you. And do you know why you cannot walk to that town? What stops you? Is there a wall, a river, a pit that you cannot cross?’

Akula shook her head. ‘It is simply not allowed. We don’t need to go, and we mustn’t go. We are the people of this town. We don’t go beyond the boundaries. Our parents tell us that from when we are very small.’

The teacher waved a hand again as if to throw his question to them all. ‘So none of you have ever been to that town?’ They all shook their heads. ‘Or any other town?’ More shakes. ‘Do you know anyone who has ever been to that town?’

Kalla put her hand up. The teacher raised his eyebrows. Kalla cleared her throat. ‘The magistrate.’ She pointed to the east. ‘He comes from over there, and he goes to other places.’

‘Ah, yes, Xela the magistrate. A man who comes and goes.’ His eyes lingered on Kalla for a moment before he turned back to the rest. ‘But no-one else? No-one else’s mother or father, uncle, cousin?’

Saibin put up her hand. ‘Well, there are people who joined the army and left, but we don’t know whether they went to that town. They just left, and we don’t know where they’ve gone.’

The man looked intently at Saibin. ‘Where do you think they have gone? What do people say?’

The boy glanced to left and right, wondering if he was getting himself or someone else into trouble. ‘They say different things. Some say to the edge of Xessus, down south, where there is a big army camp. Some say further still, maybe even to Egator. But we don’t know.’

The teacher smiled. ‘Ah, yes, you have heard of Egator, the great city. Do you know what is at Egator? What do they say about that?’

Several people put their hands up, and the teacher picked an Earth girl, Serca. ‘The king, sir, the king is at Egator. And the buildings are made of gold, and there’s thousands and thousands of soldiers, and all sorts of fine people and fantastic things to see.’

The teacher chuckled. ‘Well, I suppose there is a bit of gold on some of the buildings, and there are quite a few fine people.’ He looked around at the trees in the Space, the run-down buildings on the north and west edges of it, the bell tower standing over all beyond the poplars to his left. ‘It is a little more grand than your town here. And, yes, the king lives there.’ He paused, then waved his hand around the horizon. ‘Can you point to Egator?’

The children all turned where they sat and raised their arms in a variety of southerly directions. The teacher pursed his lips, pondered for a moment, then lifted his stick to indicate a line slightly to the east of where they were all pointing. ‘More… that way. And do you know how long it would take you to walk there?’

They all shrugged. Akula spoke again. ‘We cannot walk there at all. We cannot even start such a journey.’

The man nodded, accepting her objection. ‘All right. But I will tell you something. If you could do it, if it were permitted, it would take you three eightnights to get there, even if you walked every day about as far as your legs would take you in that time. You must accept what I say, because I have just come from there.’ He smiled at them. ‘It is a long way to walk.’

He stood for a moment gazing over their heads to the south, as if recalling his journey, then he swept his eyes over them all again. ‘All right, so you do not know any geography at all. Let me tell you that geography is the study of places, of how the land lies, of where things are in relation to each other. Because you cannot go anywhere, you do not study it. But there are reasons to know things that you cannot do – who knows, one day you might travel somewhere else…’

To most of them, this was like being told that one day they might grow wings and fly to the top of the mountain, and there was another outbreak of whispering. But the teacher held up a hand and they quietened immediately, waiting for more shocks. ‘For example, you might join the army and go to wherever the soldiers go. You might one day become the magistrate and go where Xela goes. It is possible. Then you would need some geography.’

He leaned forward on his stick and spoke softly, as if sharing a secret, but loud enough for all to hear in the silence of their rapt attention. ‘Ask your parents if they know the names of the towns. Xela knows, because the magistrate must go from place to place. Xela calls this place Nampech, and that one Madstop. To the east, where Xela comes from, is Durdum. Two days’ walk to the south there is Awato, where the governor of the whole of Xessus lives. Away to the west there is Anessam, a fishing town on the shore of the sea.’

A boy in the front row asked, ‘What is the sea?’

‘The sea! The sea is a great deal of water all in one place.’ The man spread his arms wide. ‘Like a lake, only such a huge lake you cannot see the other side, and if you got into a boat and sailed out into it you would go out of sight of land and go on and on to who knows where. It is quite something, the sea. This part of Xessus is caught up between the mountains and the sea, and you are tucked away on the very edge of the kingdom, three eightnights’ hard march from Egator where the king is. And I have been sent to check that you are learning your lessons. What do you think of that?’

Kalla shook his head. She didn’t know what to think of it. The man from Egator was telling everyone to ask their parents the kind of questions that put her father in a foul temper. She wondered if the mayor knew the man was coming. Could a stranger walk into town – into Nampech, she told herself, trying to understand that the place had a name as her friends did, to distinguish it from other places – without the mayor hearing about it?

The man rubbed his hands together. ‘All right, enough of geography. Now, I have seen you running and jumping and chasing each other around and about, but what about fighting skills?’ He ran his eyes around the crowd, focussing mainly on the boys, looking hard at the larger ones. He pointed to Ombor and Domran. ‘You two, come up here.’

Everyone shifted uneasily. Fighting skills? Ombor and Domran could certainly fight, but that wasn’t something they learned from Tambor. Kalla was happy that the bullies were apparently going to have to fight each other, rather than picking on anyone else. The two boys stood one on either side of the teacher, looking as puzzled as they ever did in numbers lessons. The teacher studied their faces, on a level with his own, perhaps taking in that they didn’t look as bright as some of the others.

He laid his stick on the ground and put up his fists in front of his face, adopting a sideways stance. ‘Do you know how to box?’ The boys shook their heads, looking glum. He changed position and took up his stick in both hands, holding it out in front of him. ‘How about fighting with staves, or maybe a sword?’ The reply was the same. ‘Can you use a slingshot?’ The teacher whirled his hand around above his head, which they assumed was something to do with the words he was using, but they had no idea what he meant. He held the stick by the middle and balanced it horizontally above his right shoulder, shaking it gently. He looked from one to the other, his eyebrows raised. ‘Javelin? No?’ He brought it down so that it was vertical in front of him, resting on the ground, gripped the middle with his left hand and made as if to pull something away from it with his right. ‘Have you learned to shoot with a bow and arrow?’

Finally Ombor had something to offer. ‘The guild of hunters use bows. I’ve been apprenticed to them and I tried it. But I wasn’t very good.’ This was surprisingly honest for Ombor, and he looked round fiercely to see which children had dared to giggle. Domran shrugged. ‘I haven’t been with the hunters. I haven’t ever tried to shoot.’

The teacher tapped a finger on his lips, looking around the group. ‘How many of your fathers – or your mothers, for that matter – would you say have learned to fight? I mean proper boxing, wrestling, swordplay, staves, slingshot, javelin, archery?’ A few children offered that their fathers were members of the guild of hunters and could use a bow, but no-one claimed that their parents had any of the other skills.

The teacher nodded, and pointed to one of the hunters’ children. ‘Tell me, how big is your father’s bow?’ The child stood up and held his hands out about a pace apart. ‘Not as big as this, then?’ The teacher stretched his arms out as wide as they would go. Some of the children laughed. They had seen the hunters going out to catch wild animals in the woods, and the idea that they would use such ungainly weapons was ridiculous. The child shook his head and sat down.

The teacher next picked up a cloth bag that lay beside him on the ground, and pulled out a long, slender… something. He unrolled it so that they could see it was a strip of thin cloth, wound tightly on two sticks. He was able deftly to twist the sticks with one hand on each so that the fabric was stretched taut between them, and he could unroll from one and roll onto the other smoothly. He half-turned his body to show them the other side of the material: they saw rows of little markings, lines and curves running across the surface in groups. He looked closely at their faces, but once again his question sounded casual, unimportant. ‘Do you know what this is?’ They all shook their heads. He nodded and explained. ‘It is called writing. All these little shapes, they represent the words that we speak. If you learn what sounds go with which shapes, you can do something called reading – you can speak the words that the person who made the writing was thinking about when he did so. It’s very clever. Instead of me having to tell you something myself, I could write it down on a scroll – that’s what this is called – and just send you the scroll, and you could read it and know what I wanted to say to you.’ The children looked at each other and whispered. What an extraordinary idea! ‘So, none of you has ever seen writing before?’ Everyone agreed that they hadn’t.

Kalla’s mind raced over all the questions they had been asked. They didn’t know the answers to any of them, and that meant that there was a great deal to know that Tambor didn’t tell them. Why not? Did Tambor not know? Did people learn these things when they were older? Surely not – the children left school when they were sixteen and started a trade. Why would the elders leave so much untaught in all the years of school only to make them learn it when they were working? She was sure that they didn’t learn them in school because they weren’t supposed to know them at all. But if that was so, why was the man from Egator asking about these things? Surely he would understand the rules. Kalla couldn’t make sense of it. Unless the man had come to make sure they didn’t know…

The teacher seemed satisfied. He linked his fingers and stretched his arms above his head. ‘Very good, very good. Now we have come to the last part of the day. I want to know if your teachers have told you any history.’

Several of the children put their hands up, and several more started speaking at once. They were smiling now, because they recognised something they could talk about. In contrast, the teacher looked surprised and a little concerned. He held out his arms with the palms down and called for quiet, then he pointed to Radnas, one of the junior Earth children from the front row, who had her hand up. ‘Tell me about the history that you have been taught.’

The girl stood up and put her hands behind her back. Her words came out in a nervous rush. ‘Tarnak’s stories are my favourite bit of the day. He tells us stories about magical beasts, dragons and centaurs and flying horses and giant snakes and birds as big as people, and he tells us about wizards and witches who can cast magic spells and make thunder and lightning and turn people into frogs and kill people with a wave of the hand, and people going deep under the ground and finding treasure and then having to fight off the dwarves whose treasure it is and…’ Her voice trailed away as she saw the teacher shaking his head.

‘Not stories, girl, history. Does he teach you any history?’

Radnas’ mouth wobbled. She glanced at the other children for support. ‘Well, those are his stories. I suppose they may not be his, exactly, because my ma and da tell me the same ones at bedtime some days. But those are his stories, the ones that he tells us.’

The teacher shook his head again, but he was smiling now. He chuckled, and waved the girl to sit down. ‘All right, so you do not know the word history, any more than you know the word geography. Well, geography tells you how the land lies, and it tells you how you would go from here to Nampech or to Egator…’ – he waved a hand in the direction of the other town on its hill, but every eye stayed on him – ‘… but history tells you why you might want to go there, and most importantly here in Xessus, it tells you why you can’t.’ He looked around for any sign of understanding, but the children were all staring at him blankly.

He spoke slowly and clearly, making his words sound more important than anything that had gone before. ‘History tells you what happened in the past. It’s like a story, but not a piece of nonsense about wizards and dragons. There are no wizards and there are no dragons. There is no magic in the real world, outside those made-up tales. Stories are all right for a child’s bedtime, but they don’t tell you anything useful. History tells you what really happened in the past.’

He put his palms together and pointed them at the children to emphasise his words. ‘Let me put it another way. Who likes cake?’

Everyone put up their hands, sure of the answer but puzzled by the question.

‘But what if you only ever had cake to eat? Would you not get hungry?’

One of the younger children said, ‘We’d get fat.’ Everyone laughed, and even the teacher joined in. Then he grew serious again.

‘Yes, you might well get fat. You would certainly not grow fit and healthy. Those stories about dragons are like cake, sweet things, not nourishing. Your bodies need proper food, and your minds need the truth: real history.’

One of the other boys put up his hand. ‘Tambor does tell us stories about old Xessus, sir – about what he did a long time ago.’

The man looked puzzled. ‘What he did, child? What who did?’

‘Xessus, the hero. The country’s called after him. He fought the gods of drought and flood and put them in prison in the mountains, and he made a great wall to keep out the country’s enemies, and found all sorts of medicines and that sort of thing. Tambor tells us those stories, as well as the ones about magic.’

The teacher clicked his tongue dismissively. ‘They are the same sort of story. I’ve heard some of them, and I don’t think they ever really happened. There aren’t any dragons, and there never was a man called Xessus…’

He waited for yet another outburst of muttering to die down. ‘I’m sorry if you have all believed that they are true, but those old legends are stories told to explain what you see around you – the people who invented them started off with what they found in their world, and they concocted a fairy-tale that made sense of it. It’s probably true that Xessus did a lot of the things in those stories, but it was the whole people of the country, not just one man with that name.’

He paused a moment before continuing. ‘Those legends can be interesting, because they often do tell you something about the world you live in. They’re better than the stories about fantastic beasts, because those aren’t real at all. But true history, that’s the best kind. That tells you what really happened, here’ – he pointed to the ground on which he was standing – ‘around here’ – he waved an arm to take in the town and the countryside – ‘to real people, not legends, not wizards and witches – your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents.’

Akula put up her hand, and the teacher nodded to her. ‘Sir, why is that more useful than stories about magic? We like Tambor’s stories, they’re exciting and funny. Why is what really happened better than that? Most of us never knew our great-grandparents, they’re dead and buried – why do they make a difference to us now?’

The teacher glanced up at the sky, his lips pursed, as if weighing up the question. Then he looked back at Akula. His voice took on a new urgency. It was clear that he wanted them to understand, to accept this one thing above everything else he’d told them before. ‘All right, there is a place for stories that just entertain you, as there is a place for cake and sweet things in a meal. But if you don’t know your history, your real past, you can’t understand your present. I asked you earlier why you cannot pack yourself a lunch and walk to that town over there, and none of you knew, none of you knows. The answer is in your history. The answer is in something that happened in the past.’

The tightness had returned to Kalla’s chest. This time she knew that the man from Egator was leading them to the edge of a precipice. The elders all said the same thing. We do not dwell on the past. We live in the present and look to the future. Only the old blind beggar, someone with nothing to lose, told her stories from his childhood. She felt the same thrill as she had when she was first allowed to go out of town with the donkeymen – something that had been beyond her grasp was so close she could reach out and touch it. Until this moment she hadn’t realised the strength of her desire to know what the stranger called history. Until this moment, it had been as inaccessible as the mountain-tops.

The teacher scanned the class solemnly, then suddenly grinned. He had everyone’s closest attention now. They were shuffling forward, leaning in, concentrating on every word he spoke. He crouched down, resting his staff across his bent knees, and whispered conspiratorially. ‘Would you like to hear some history?’

Some nodded vigorously, but others shook their heads. In the murmuring of many voices, Kalla could hear…

‘We do not dwell on the past?’ the teacher repeated. ‘Why not? Why do you tell stories that are nonsense and forget your history?’

Kalla put up his hand. The man pointed to her. ‘Bad things in the past make people angry. Angry people do bad things in the present. We’re told to forget what’s gone and get on with our lives. But if you don’t remember, you don’t learn.’

There was complete silence. Everyone was staring at her. She felt her face turn red.

The teacher nodded slowly, studying Kalla with new interest. ‘Thank you. You are wise beyond your years, or you are wise enough to listen to wise words from others.’ He spread his arms to take them all in. ‘It is time to remember, to learn. Do not worry about what is allowed and not allowed. I have come from Egator, where the king is.’

Kalla noted that he did not say he had come from the king.

The man stood up and leaned on his staff. ‘All right. How do the legends of Xessus begin? Where I come from, that kind of a story always starts “In a year without a number”.’ There was murmured agreement. The teacher smiled. ‘History is a little different. Does anyone know the number of this year?’

Kalla and several others put up their hands. One of them offered, ‘Eight hundred and seventy-seven.’

‘Very good. Eight hundred and seventy-seven years since the foundation of the kingdom between the seas, since the time of the first king. Men and women live to be about sixty years old, so that’s just about fifteen spans of life – do you know how many kings there have been in eight hundred and seventy-seven years?’ Everyone shook their heads. Kalla recalled her father’s words: the king has always been the king and always will be. The teacher had confirmed it wasn’t true.

‘There have been forty-nine. History, you see. Who is the king now?’

Several voices spoke at once. ‘Rednaxela, sir.’

‘Indeed. Rednaxela, fourth king of the kingdom to bear that name, forty-ninth ruler. He has been king for twenty-six years, much longer than any of you have been alive. Before him, his father Polenep was king for sixteen years; Polenep’s father Ottasir for twenty-five; Ottasir’s half-brother Ecneral for sixteen. How are your numbers – what year did Ecneral come to be king?’

Kalla was the only one who answered. ‘Seven hundred and ninety-four.’

The teacher stared at her across the heads of the younger children, taken aback. ‘Good girl! You are paying attention. You see, history and numbers as well as history and geography.’

Kalla was also surprised. She hadn’t realised she’d been counting in her head as the teacher listed the kings. She heard a cracking of knuckles from her right and glanced sideways to see Domran growling at her.

‘Ecneral’s father was Riadsala, first king of that name. Have you heard the name Riadsala?’

Several children put their hands up. The teacher pointed to one. ‘My parents sometimes say, ‘Riadsala’s Mercy’, when they’re surprised or upset or something. When they don’t say something ruder…’ Some of the children giggled. The others put their hands down, nodding in agreement.

‘But do you know what it means? Has anyone ever explained to you what the Mercy of Riadsala was, or is?’ All the children in the front rows shook their heads. Kalla glanced to her right, along the lines of older children. No-one nodded, but she could tell that some of them knew. They wore the same fearful expressions as gave away the guilty party when Tambor was looking for the person responsible for some prank. So some people tell their children these things in private, people with more to lose than a blind man.

The teacher appeared to take no notice of the faces in the back row, but Kalla thought she caught a glint in his eye, a twitch of his mouth, that showed he’d seen.  He asked another question. ‘And is anyone in this town, in Durdum, called Riadsala?’ This time everyone denied it.

‘Riadsala was king from the year 749 until 794, forty-five years, longer than any king before him or since. He was only twenty-five when his father died, and he was seventy at his own death. During his time the kingdom had peace and prosperity. What I am going to tell you concerns him very closely, but it happened in the time of his father, Rednaxela the third king of that name. This story is kept in the library at Egator – a place where they store a great deal of writing – and I have studied it and learned it by heart.’

He raised a hand towards the east, towards Durdum. ‘Today, your magistrate is Xela, the king’s representative in this part of the kingdom. In the year seven hundred and thirty-nine, the magistrate at Durdum was a man named Dennara, a doctor who spent most of his time healing the sick. In those days the king’s soldiers were camped throughout the countryside, and they did most of what the magistrate does now – settling disputes, keeping the laws.

‘In that year, a terrible sickness took hold of the whole of Xessus. Dennara was an excellent doctor and he found a cure, but by the time he and his sons had travelled the length and breadth of the province treating people, many were dead, and the army had been reduced to a handful of sick and weakened troops. Rednaxela third king was very unpopular – Xessans had to send a great deal of food, cloth and other things they made down south in tax and tribute to Egator – and the people decided this was the chance to take the country for themselves. Dennara wasn’t keen, but they talked him into accepting the job of governor of the whole province of Xessus – the old one had died of the sickness – and running the country from Awato without sending anything to Egator any more.

‘Dennara knew the king would surely not leave it at that, so he made preparations. Xessans trained to fight for the first time in more than a hundred and fifty years. They learned to use swords and staves, they learned to shoot a longbow. Even those of you who have tried the little hunting bows of your parents will have no idea what a longbow can do. It will send an arrow four hundred paces. At short range it will drive a shaft through a plank of wood, or skewer a man like meat for the oven. The Xessans had to prepare their minds for that as well as their bodies, and make ready what defences they could.’

The teacher glanced up at the sun. ‘I will not tell the whole story of Dennara’s war, because I must get to the end before the bell rings.’ There were protests that the children wanted to hear everything, but he waved for silence. ‘Another time, perhaps. And you can ask your parents if they know the tale. They can fill in the gaps for me.’

Kalla looked along the line, counting in his mind the children who had shown they’d heard of Riadsala’s Mercy. Saibin was one. We do not dwell on the past. Do the others’ parents know and not tell, or do they not know? Saibin was studying the teacher with keen interest. Some of the others still looked worried.

The teacher went on. ‘Dennara was a lucky man. Twice he was able to defeat armies from the south, once by a clever trick, and the second time because another sickness struck their camp when they were laying siege to Awato. He shaved the heads of the generals and sent them home to tell the king that the Xessans had been fleeced like sheep for long enough. Rednaxela was furious – there are no words to describe his anger. He’d lived for fifteen years with the pain of wounds suffered in a war in the far south, and that pain made him a bitter and violent man. The indignity of being beaten by the Xessans was enough to tip him over into madness. The generals who returned to Egator with a defeated army and an impertinent message were publicly executed, and he swore that Xessus would be razed.’

‘Raised?’ asked one of the children in the front row. ‘Where to?’

The teacher shook his head, his expression grim. ‘Not raised up, my girl. Razed. Crushed, destroyed. Rednaxela would have taken a giant broom and swept the country until it was flat, not a stone standing on a stone, not a soul left alive. Revenge on Dennara filled his thoughts. He would have led an army here himself, but he was too infirm for the long journey. So he chose his son, Riadsala, a boy of just seventeen years in 741, and told him that he would have to win back Xessus if he ever wanted to be king.’

Kalla glanced along the back rows. Seventeen. Scarcely older than them.

‘Riadsala brought an army through the desolate land to the east of Xessus, out of sight of Dennara’s scouts, and took the province by surprise. There were sieges, there were battles, and the Xessans suffered defeat after defeat.’

He stretched out a hand to point behind to his right. ‘In the far west of Xessus, in a narrow space of land between the sea and the mountains, there is something that is considered a wonder of the world. So long ago that no-one can say who did it, someone built a great wall to block the gap and hold out the wilderness. It is three thousand paces long, and marvellously high and strong. It is called the Westwall of Xessus. Have you heard of it?’

Some of them nodded. One offered, ‘It’s the wall that the hero built in the legend.’ The teacher smiled. ‘Yes, the building of it is a legend. It was there before the kingdom was established, nearly nine hundred years ago. Even then, the people who built the wall were already forgotten – you tell the story as if it was just one man. It is said that it stands today looking as if it has just been finished – it is so well made that the years have not touched it. I can’t say if that is so: I have never seen it. But this I do know: it is the edge of the kingdom, and beyond it there is just an empty land of marshes and rivers without any people at all.

‘Dennara and his followers were harried into this corner. Riadsala offered terms to the people left in Durdum, and Nampech, and Madstop, and Awato, and other smaller towns which had no walls. He said that they would be treated fairly if they surrendered, but if they resisted then he would be forced to carry out his father’s orders. He made sure everyone knew exactly what those orders were. With the Xessan army defeated and gone, the towns gave in one by one, all of them. Riadsala pushed Dennara back against the Westwall. There, at the very edge of the kingdom, Dennara took his last stand: he had about five hundred fighting men left, together with a few hundred women and children who had fled along with their husbands and fathers. They had the advantage of being on top of a hill, and they had the wall behind them so they could not be attacked from the rear. But they only had a few longbowmen, and Riadsala’s troops surrounded them. Riadsala himself walked forward with a white cloth held up on a branch, and Dennara came out to speak to him…’

Someone asked, ‘Why didn’t the Xessans shoot Riadsala?’

The teacher wagged a finger at him. ‘You don’t shoot someone who is coming for a parley. You don’t shoot the other side’s officers. That would be against the rules of war. In any case, if they had done so, they would all have died straight away.’ He spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. ‘Riadsala was the only one who would dare not to do Rednaxela’s will.’

He put his palms together, his fingertips against his lips, and glanced at the sinking sun before continuing. Then he spoke more quickly, hurrying to finish the story before the end of class. ‘So Dennara came down, and Riadsala said to him, ‘You have the choice: you can surrender here and now, or you can die, and all your people will die with you.’ Dennara knew there was only one answer. He said that he had no alternative, he would surrender: he asked for Riadsala to do what he would with himself, but to spare the women and the children and his followers.

‘Riadsala knew his father’s command, but he also remembered that Dennara had spared the soldiers he’d defeated, and had even treated and cured those who were sick at the siege of Awato. The prince wasn’t old and wounded and bitter like his father, and he wasn’t as vindictive. So he accepted the surrender, and he made the people an offer. He said that they could live in Xessus under the terms that he would set for them, or they could leave for ever. Dennara himself would be banished, and any that would not accept Riadsala’s terms must go with him.’

‘Leave?’ asked Saibin. ‘Where to?’

‘There is a great gate in the Westwall. Riadsala ordered it to be opened, and he said that Dennara could have the wilderness for his own. And the old man – he was fifty by now, but he looked older – went and stood in the gateway, and prepared to go alone, but one by one his followers crossed the space to stand by him. Half of them, some two hundred and fifty men, and their women and children, chose to go with Dennara out through the wall. The rest decided to stay. Both sides accepted the Mercy of Riadsala – that they would not be put to death, but they would have to live on his terms inside the wall, or on their own terms outside it. The wilderness is an empty country of marshes and wild animals where no-one lives. The Westwall is the edge of the world.’

The children stared at each other, realising that they must be the great-grandchildren of the people who chose to stay, or the people who had surrendered their towns.

‘There is one more thing that I will tell you about that final stroke of the war. Because so many chose to go, Riadsala said that it would be necessary to mark them. If any man who went through the gate with Dennara should ever be found in the kingdom again, he would be put to death. The women and children were not to be marked, because they should be allowed to choose again later if they wanted to return. If they made their own choice and it was different from their husband’s or father’s, they would be welcomed back. But the men were branded like farm animals: a five-pointed star was burned onto their forehead, so that anyone could see that they were one of Dennara’s followers.’

The teacher drew a figure in the sand with his stick. Children stood up, craned their necks, shuffled forward to see it. He asked, ‘Have you ever seen a shape like this before?’ Everyone shook their heads. The teacher nodded. ‘No, you would not have done. It is the mark of death in the kingdom. If anyone has this on them, it is the duty of any citizen to kill them straight away.’

Akula shook her head, puzzled. ‘But all the people who went out through the wall must be long dead anyway…’

‘Yes. But it is still the law, one of the mercies of Riadsala.’ The teacher pointed over their heads towards the top of the bell tower, shining in the afternoon sun. ‘Look there, below the bell. What do you see?’

The children lifted their heads, shielding their eyes against the brightness of the westering sun’s reflection from the brass, and frowned. ‘Nothing’ was muttered by several.

‘Look a little harder. Can you not see marks in the stone?’

Kalla squinted, and he saw that there seemed to be an area where something had been cut away. She realised that on the other sides of the tower, just below the top, there was a stone carving – a setting sun on the west face that they could see; he knew that there was a rising sun on the east side and an eye in the south, but on the north side nothing… but it did seem, when he looked closely, as if there had once been something there that had been removed.

‘The five-pointed star was the sign of old Xessus, the emblem, the flag.’ The teacher spread his hands out sideways and set his feet apart so that his body resembled the figure. ‘It stood for the five tribes that you still know. Earth and Water’ – moving his feet – ‘Air and Fire’ – moving his hands – ‘and Mind over all’ – nodding his head – ‘and the power of the soul in the centre’ – putting his right hand over his heart as if giving respect – ‘it was the symbol of life to Xessans. Riadsala made it a sign of death, and it was removed from wherever it had been carved. If you look closely at the older buildings around you, you will notice many gaps in the decorations where something is missing, and that is where a five-pointed star once was.’

The children looked towards the stonework on the grand houses and meeting halls around the Space. Kalla immediately pictured several places which fitted the teacher’s description.

‘So, finally, I will tell you what I intended. The Mercy of Riadsala for Dennara and those who followed him was to allow them the freedom of the wilderness. The gate was shut, and no-one has come back through the Westwall in all the years that have passed since then. The Mercy of Riadsala for those who chose to stay was this: they were to pay their taxes to the king in future, and they would have a governor from the south to see that this happened. They would no longer be allowed to go from town to town, so it would be harder for them to build up an army. They should have no weapons, they should learn no fighting skills, they should not be taught geography or writing or history. Dennara was to be forgotten; the very idea of rebellion was to be forgotten. They could have life, but they could not have freedom, because they had used their freedom to defy the king. That is what they accepted. That is what you live under now, a hundred and thirty-five years after Dennara and his followers left through the gate in the Westwall. Riadsala’s Mercy.’