Strangely enough Maljie features only sparingly in this tale, although there are those who claim that the whole thing was her fault. Still I know from mine own experience that blame is far too easily spread about by those interested mainly in hiding their own faults.
Maljie has been described to me as a lady who, “enjoyed rude good health, or at least enjoyed rude.” The tale starts because she didn’t: She was noticeably unwell and was feeling particularly under the weather. Still, once old Prophet Weden pronounced her not to be infectious, various people visited her. The prophet himself sat with her and commented, “Tis but a simple pox, stay away from pregnant women, infants, and fer some reason, horses.”
He also pronounced, “What you need is a touch from the hermeneutic Catherine wheel.” This was reported to the incumbent who commented that this was obviously something to do with the teaching being offered at a distant mountain monastery in the Aphices Mountains. Given that Laxey, the sub-Hierodeacon, had managed to become involved in the choir robe scandal, he was the obvious person to send. It should be noted that this outrage, where the choir robes of various ladies were misplaced and turned up in all sorts of unlikely places, was dealt with by the ladies themselves and nobody, not even the incumbent, was entirely sure what had gone on.
Initially Laxey was to go on his own, accompanied by the particularly large and hairy mendicant. This latter individual had fallen foul of Maljie. He had been given the task of taking breakfast to the invalid. He made the mistake of entering wearing a mask he’d borrowed from a plague doctor and fled pursued by a vigorously hurled tray. (His penance was to continue as her nurse.)
It seems that when the various authorities got to learn of Laxey’s errand it was regarded as an ideal opportunity to foist upon him a score of the more robust and rumbustious mendicants. These were people whom both the senior hierophants and the more discriminating officers of the watch felt could be exported from the city to its advantage. There was the shared, but unspoken, hope that if they left with Laxey, they might not return.
The journey would be long, and would have to be made on foot. The trip to the monastery would take a fortnight. Yet when the party set off, Laxey as the leader was informed that there was no need to issue him funds for expenses, because he and his followers could beg for alms along their route. To be fair, it is not unknown for those of the lowest rank to do this. If there were only two or three of them at most, people can be quite lavish. Matters are different when the party is two dozen strong. Even the most generous elderly lady is going to baulk at supplying the two sacks of vegetables and half a mott ham necessary to provide enough decent broth to go with the dozen large loaves that they would devour. Thus it has to be said that the party fasted. In fact two days out of Port Naain they’d already had four of the mendicants desert. So when, a day later, they were held up by bandits, they mugged the bandits. Having taken over the bandit camp they then devoured most of the bandit supplies. That done, eight of the mendicants, after a long theological discussion, felt called upon to become bandits in the place of those whom they had banished. There was much talk about the need to maintain the balance, and the importance of encouraging local industries. Indeed they even quoted, from memory, certain apposite scriptures that they had heard. Laxey felt that they were guilty of more than a little eisegesis but on the other hand, he did not wish to stand in the way of a genuine vocation. Thus next morning he continued on his way, leading a smaller band of mendicants, but at least they were carrying the bulk of what remained of the bandit’s supply cache.
Laxey hoped that they would get a day or two to rest in Avitas, but they left the next morning. Admittedly they were escorted to the city boundary by the watch, but their numbers had shrunk yet again. Two of the mendicants had accepted jobs as doormen at the House of Unseemly Cavorting, whilst four others were being questioned by the watch with regard to the disappearance of two bronze statues, each the size of a man.
At last they arrived at the monastery. They had spent two days climbing narrow paths through the mountains, and finally they saw the monastery on the mountain side above them. Much to Laxey’s surprise the area was busy, apparently there was a major theological conference upon the topic of the hermeneutic Catherine wheel, and delegations had come from all over the west. Laxey and his party struggled to make their way through the press of sumpter mules, palanquins, ecclesiastical coaches and a wide assortment of riding horses. A somewhat harassed monk was trying to explain that they only had stabling for four horses here, but there were adequate stables two days march away down a different valley.
Pressing on, Laxey’s small party climbed the steep rock cut steps to the monastery and were welcomed by the hosts. It has to be said that the hospitality was generous and their hosts kind. The food was plentiful and at regular intervals the hosts would circulate with coffee brewed from beans they grew on their own narrow terraces high above the monastery. Whilst excellent, Laxey soon discovered that it was so strong the drinker ended up seeing visions and in extreme cases, hearing colours.
Soon Laxey was summoned to the round of lectures. He discovered that the finest theological scholars, working together, had discovered a phylogenetic relationship between the various literary sources. Slowly it was revealed to him that the exegesis hinted that there existed the possibility of a whole new eschatological paradigm. After three days exploring the semiotics, presuppositions, and pre-understandings, Laxey had abandoned the coffee and was drinking nothing but weak tea.
Finally, in desperation, Laxey asked to see a spiritual adviser. He was escorted to the cell of an elderly monk who encouraged him to sit down, slip off his sandals, and to drink slowly a glass of red wine. Finally, feeling Laxey had relaxed enough, the spiritual adviser asked, “So what encouraged your interest in Hermeneutics?”
Laxey, still cradling his wine glass, pondered this. His instinct to leap in quickly with an answer was stilled by the elderly monk topping his glass up. Finally, secure in the confidentiality of the relationship, Laxey said simply. “I had to come to find a cure for Maljie.”
It was the turn of the monk to sit long in silence sipping wine. Finally he said, “Does she still ride horses bareback?”
“Not that I know of,” Laxey admitted.
“And the overly complicated financial instruments?”
“Those she has given up.”
“Good, good.” Laxey noticed that his spiritual adviser seemed to be rocking backwards and forwards as he sat. Indeed he felt that if it hadn’t been for the fact the older man was clutching both the bottle and a wine glass, he’d have been holding his head in both hands.
“And the bizarre moulds made from a combination of outlandish plant resins?”
The monk seemed to relax. “Then my advice to you, my son, is that you return, in haste, to Port Naain. This is not the place for you.”
“But what about Maljie and her illness.”
The monk reached out and from under his bed he pulled a crate. He extracted a bottle and pushed the crate back, concealing it with the simple blanket that was draped across the bed. “A tonic wine we make to ensure the health of those whose calling is to dwell here. Leave at dawn and take Maljie this.”
Laxey pondered the advice. “Why dawn?”
“Because you’ll get down to the stables before the monk in charge and will have your pick of the horses there.”
Emboldened by this spiritual guidance, Laxey made his way home. The last of his mendicants disappeared from our ken, whether they embraced the hermeneutic Catherine wheel, or merely joined the entourages of more senior spiritual figures is unknown.
Laxey arrived back at the shrine and was ushered through to see Maljie. He presented her with the wine, indeed he poured her a glass. At her command he even recounted for her an expurgated tale of his adventures. Once he’d finished his tale he asked, “And what is this about bareback riding?”
As he fled the room, Maljie hurled the chamber pot at him. By throwing himself to the ground in the corridor he managed to avoid the worst of the contents. They fell to the big and hairy mendicant who was bringing Maljie her evening meal. The incumbent felt that the tonic wine had obviously worked and Maljie was pronounced cured.
There is a lot to be said about travelling in Port Naain. Occasionally some of it is positive.
As a reviewer commented, “Benor the cartographer is offered a job away from home with unusually generous pay. It all has to be done on the quiet, too. Something’s up. Benor has a murder to solve. I thought he had, but there’s more to come. This story is a murder mystery and a comedy of manners, set in a world of fantasy. If you like a genre mashup, this is brilliant. The characters and their relationships and banter would make it worth reading even if it didn’t have a plot – but it does. Another winner for me.”