A Matter of Honour

Melanie Dunstan 1997 "Mother, come quickly!"

Breithe smoothed floury hands on threadbare apron and tied the scarf over her hair as protection against sticky salt spray as she raced for the cliff. She knew that tone of voice well - it meant that Tonder was in trouble again. Four years older, but far less wise, than her pretty daughter. Yetta was dancing with anxiety at the cliff edge.

Breithe ran. And cursed the spirit that led men to take their wives and families away from civilisation, to make do - and then die - in the wilds. But at least they still had the tiny boat, and the children were starting to be able to help with the work.... The wind moaned through the grasses at her feet as she ran.

As she neared the cliff she saw three masts with too many sails and a strange boat beneath them. It reminded her of stories from her youth - of pale-skinned pirates with no love of life, coming only to destroy. Panic fluttered at her throat; she felt the fear of the unprotected. Yetta, ahead of her, leaped down the rocky ledges half-hewn into the cliff face. Her woman’s braids - so newly made - thumping at her back as she jumped from step to step.

Panting, Breithe faced the circle of white men at the cliff base. They stood facing out, as if protecting something. Strangers, foreign. Pale blue eyes stared, flat, cold, and emotionless from granite faces, whiter than skin should be. Fear lent her bravery. She stepped forward, and a man, smaller and darker than the rest, came to meet her. He bowed.

"Folya, greetings. The young Tarro, he plays." Breithe screwed up her eyes to try and understand the man’s atrocious accent, and the strange greeting words he used. Another foreigner. But from somewhere else, closer, it seemed, for his skin and eyes were the proper colour. One of the men called something out, in a language that made her throat ache just to hear it. The dark man nodded. "Folya, Master say game is soon end." Breithe’s fear increased and she looked towards the agitated Yetta.

"Mother, Tonder was watching the white men play this game with a tiny ball and a box with holes in it - one man puts his hands on the box and another man puts in the ball and they wait, and shout, then the other man places his hands on the box instead. Tonder thought they were gambling and he wanted to try it and he talked to the men for a while and then he started playing. But when Tonder shouted, it sounded like pain. Then I saw one man’s hand bleeding and he was swaying, so I peeped between their legs and - oh, Mother, Tonder’s flopping all over the place like a dying fish!"

Breithe cursed Yetta’s inability to tell any story clearly, without close questioning. Obviously Tonder had roped himself into this strange game and received more than he bargained for - but what this time? Breithe stuck her chin out and tried to push past the small man towards the ring. He was strong, and he prevented her. The men crowded closer together, their oddly cut ballooning trousers preventing her from seeing what was behind.

"Folya...." the man’s dark eyes were compassionate "The young Tarro - he plays. Not you stopping." Again came a guttural, barking sentence from the man in the ring. "Folya, listening be. Ship Master wanting Folyaren." The dark man indicated Yetta as he spoke. "As pay. For game with no Kriochor. Much privilege. The young Tarro offered for Kriochor. As pay for privilege. A matter of honour. Tarro is, not Tarronen. Must you wait. Soon end."

"Tarro?" Said Breithe, dazedly. The dark man nodded, pointing at each man. "Tarro. Tarro. Tarro." Then pointing at Breithe, "Folya" and at Yetta "Folyaren". Breithe nodded. The dark man held his hand as if measuring, at waist height; "Tarronen, Folyaren" and then at head height "Tarro, Folya". Breithe nodded again. Suddenly she had a vision of one of her childhood tutors, small and dark as this man, speaking to her of his native land and using just such words to speak of men and women, girls and boys. Tonder, at sixteen summers, was equated a man in the strangers’ culture, she gathered. Her language tutors at home had praised her grasp of foreign tongues.

"HAI!" the harsh shout from thirty foreign throats chilled Breithe. The small man restrained her arms as she tried to dart forward again. "HAI!" Again the cliffs around the inlet reverberated with strange sounds. "HAI-AI-AI!" Suddenly, the ring of men was gone. Her vision was filled with the image of her son, grey of face, still as stone. Holding his head in her lap, she raised her voice to lament the dead - but the dark man stopped her. "Folya. Folya. Not you singing. Tarro here is. First game. Three game makes gone. First game only"

In her lap, Tonder took a shuddering breath, and giggled. Saliva dripped from his blued lips. Breithe, relieved, took his hand to chafe it, and gasped at the blackened puncture wounds. "Kriochor." The tone of the dark man’s voice was disapproving. "Tarro walking, talking again, but slow always. Kriochor not it going away. No two game, this Tarro, no three game. I telling you, I caring be. I, Folyaren, Taronnen having at home. No game more this Tarro," he said, quietly, firmly.


Three men detached themselves from a group near the strange ship. One walked slowly, as if drunk, leaning on his partner’s arm for balance. They picked up Tonder and headed for the cliff face. "Kriochori Tarro." Said the dark man, pointing. "Two game, this Tarro. Three game makes gone. This Tarro are home remaining soon." Breithe caught her breath as the afflicted man walked straight into the cliff face and then giggled. His nose was bleeding.

"Why?" she cried at the dark man, all the fears, all the tragic events of her lonely life and the dashed hopes for her small family’s future bound up in that one hopeless word. The wind took it, and haunting echoes returned from the cliffs. The dark man shook his head and shrugged. "Folya. A matter of honour."

    "But I still don’t know what honour means, Prasad," whined the small boy. "Quiet, Yamad," said his mother, securely squashed into the priesthood’s largest visitors’ chair. "These are teaching stories, as the good Prasad has told you already many times, my heart, my boy." Yamad wriggled resentfully at these endearments, and Prasad had to suppress a grin - ‘Mother’ at least, had not taken in a word he’d said. But he had hopes for Yamad. "You want to grow up to enter the priesthood my boy, you must learn what honour, and truth - and even justice - means", she said, huffily, raising her eyes to the heavens at the priest, in collusion against youthful ignorance.

    "But why doesn’t the story tell more about the drug?" asked the boy, yearningly. "That’s the same drug that the priests use, isn’t it - and - and the priestesses? It gives dreams, doesn’t it, and happiness? Doesn’t it, Prasad?" The young priest looked down at his feet. "Yamad," he said slowly. "Everything - everything, has a cost. Taken in youth, the drug will cost your life. But still our young men play Kriochiori.

    The law says no drug on the needles until you are twenty at least. But the young men feel they know better. And the fact that there are hundreds in the priesthood homes who can hardly feed themselves from having used the drug too early in life does nothing - absolutely nothing - to prevent these young hotheads from blackening their needles. They seek a little freedom from humdrum lives, and it costs them the freedom of their bodies, as they become prisoners of their minds, unable to reach the world."

    Yamad might have taken all this good advice in and pondered it, if his mother had not interjected; "Now that’s right my son, my own. Mother says you leave those nasty blackening drugs alone they are for those horrible women to use - not for men, - and I can’t lose you to those horrible substances, now can I, precious boy? You must listen to the good Prasad - for he’s a priest, and they always tell the truth, don’t they Prasad?" As she spoke, she heaved her bulk out of the chair, took hold of the boy in an unbreakable grip, and floated him to the door on a river of unending sound.

    As the blissful silence washed back into the visitor’s room, Prasad gave a giggle, and a sigh of relief. Then calling his boy from the corner, he placed his scarred, blackened palms on the youth’s shoulders rather more heavily than usual, and supported by the boy, they wove their way back to the dormitories.

  • From ‘The Words of Prasad’, Priests Archive 453.00.23