03/23/2015 § Leave a comment
The westernmost land-bound gate on Havertham’s outer walls is commonly known as the Martyr’s Gate, for the hundreds upon hundreds of Eudesian heretics whose decapitated heads have been displayed from the roof of its gatehouse over the course of twenty years’ religious cleansing.
This piece of history, jarring in its bloody-mindedness even among centuries’ worth of violent deeds, has never sat well with Theodric Lowe. There are rumours of ghosts, of bitter winds blowing through the stones and compelling men of Watch assigned here, men of sound faith and judgement just like him, to madness and heresy.
Todd, as his comrades call him despite his longstanding protest, would never admit to a feeling of disquiet over such rumours. But he has, time and again since the assignment began, felt a breeze when there was no wind, and heard murmurings on it that did not belong to any living person. So far he has been able to laugh off these hair-raising instances as foolish imaginings of an overactive mind, which he knows he has, but today, on this the last day of Lamentations, he finds his disquiet no easy thing to dismiss.
Part of it, aside from the blasted Dusk sky, is that he is alone on watch, having drawn the shortest straw. His comrades, all eight of them, are in the gatehouse playing cards, leaving the gate open and unguarded, and leaving Todd on the wall to keep watch over the Long Road and the river Forlorn.
They would be in deep trouble if their sergeant ever hears of it. Never mind docked pay—desertion of post is serious enough to earn each man thirty lashes at the very least. Thirty—that’s enough to keep a man bedridden for weeks, if not crippled for life.
But Todd knows perfectly well that no one is getting lashed. It simple isn’t going to happen. Their sergeant—a sly bastard—has gone back to the city on an “urgent matter” this morrow, which they all know means getting an early start on the Solace day festivities. The sergeant won’t be returning anytime soon, and, if Todd were to hazard a guess, is probably bedding some poor singing house girl even now.
So really, by giving themselves a break from their duties, the men are only following the sergeant’s lead (May he find crotch-rot and louse afterwards!). A well-earned rest after the insanity of past three weeks, of dealing with ceaseless waves of colonial refugees flocking in. The last of them, miners from Abelung, the farthest colony out west, came through three days ago. No one else has shown up since. In all likelihood, none will.
As relieved as he is that the emigration is over, Todd dislikes the idleness it has left him with. Having nothing at all to do, well, that is its own kind of hardship to endure. Especially given what he has experienced—no, imagined—during his time here. The dead breathing down his neck, trying to unhinge a good man with their murmurings. The gate is a marked place, and it is an evil time, with the sun dying, with Night so near.
03/09/2015 § Leave a comment
In all the years of his not-so-glorious life, no one has ever called Shane Moss a clever lad. No one has ever had a cause, and it is extremely unlikely anyone ever will. He is, simply put, the opposite of whatever passes for cleverness in the world. Even his own mother (seven years departed now, bless her soul) used to tell him, regularly and with varying degrees of self-pity and viciousness, that it was her greatest misfortune to have given birth to an idiot son whose mind was more suited for an ass than a man, and that it would have been so much better for everyone had he died in her womb.
It bespeaks a great resilience of character that Moss, having lived with the burden of such judgement most of his life, has made peace with the sad truth about his intelligence. There are things in life, he has come to understand, that simply and utterly lie beyond a man’s control. Such as the time and place of one’s birth, when Night falls, when Dawn comes. Life itself, when you think about it, isn’t a choice one makes. He did not choose to be born to an ageing prostitute in Hangman’s Quarter, did he? Never asked for the lazy eye or, for that matter, the feebleness of mind that makes letters and numbers so bizarre in his eyes.
Moss has also come to understand, especially since his mother’s passing, that however much he is lacking in cleverness, he has other qualities to make up for it. He has strong hands, quick feet, and, to quote a taskmaster he used to work for, the endurance of an ox. He gets these from his father, he likes to think, though his mother never could give him a firm answer about the man. Only that he might have been—maybe, possibly—a man of the Watch.
Which, as it happened, was enough of a reason for him to enlist in the Watch, as a trainee, soon as he turned sixteen five years ago.
At first, it seemed that Moss had found his calling in life. He excelled at physical training, received praise after praise for the way he handled a cudgel or tackled down a runner. For the first time in his life others treated him with something approaching respect, and he felt a sense of belonging, a warmth in his soul, which he had not known was possible before. Being a Watchman, he spoke to a fellow trainee on one occasion, with an articulation that was rare for him, was everything he had ever wanted in life. It was what he was born to be.
But then, one morrow after the yard exercises, Moss was called on to read out some instructions for dealing with curfew-breakers. He couldn’t, of course. Not fast enough anyway, and not without stammering. The sergeant in charge for the day, one Marlowe Briggs, berated him for this failure in front of all the other trainees. They laughed at him. Shit-for-brains, Briggs called him, before dismissing him out of the yard and, as it turned out, out of the training altogether.
Moss never got to put on the Watcher’s mask.
Being who he was, having no other option but patience, Moss endured that humiliation. Took the whole incident on the chin, went quietly back to his life as a porter in the warehouse district. Things didn’t always work out the way you wanted them to in life, which was all right by him. He’d always known that, right from the beginning, it was the story of his life. But still, even as he carried on being who he always had been (a nobody), something had changed within him. He had taken an initiative, and had felt—tasted—what it was like to be… more. And now he knew—call it an instinct, an intuition—that if you waited, if you were patient, sometimes there were things you could do for yourself to get ahead in life.
So Moss waited. Patiently, for two and a half years, watching from afar as the man who had ruined his one prospect in life with nothing more than a simple gesture of dismissal (a flick of the wrist) went on about his life. He waited, not knowing but somehow believing that a moment would come for him to seize… and make things right.
Such a moment did come, eventually, in an alleyway behind Briggs’s favourite tavern, one eve after curfew.
Sergeant Briggs, as it happens, no longer counts himself among the living.
It is safe to say that Moss has not changed in any significant way since that moment behind the tavern, though the circumstances of his life certainly has, and for the better.
For one thing, he no longer works like a mule in the warehouse district. Work finds him now, comes to his very doorstep with money up front. It is only a few times each month, mostly in the eves, but it still pays him well enough for a room to call his own and food and drinks for the table, as well as occasional bets on the races and, if he wins them, visits to the finer singing houses in the city.
Above all, no one dares call him shit-for-brains anymore. Not to his face anyway, which is the most important thing. He has a name in the city now, which is known and perhaps even respected in certain parts of Havertham as a dependable bloodletter.
Shane Moss is no Watchman, that is true, and the sight of them still causes him a twinge of… yearning, but he can say with pride and dignity that he has made something of himself despite, well, himself.
All because he had been patient and ready, for a life-changing moment he believed, in the deepest part of his soul, would come.
And now, on this the twenty-fifth day of Dusk, Moss is waiting, with the same patience and inner conviction that has served him so well, for another such moment to arrive.
But there is also a certain nervousness, a sense of unease, that hangs over him like a bad dream one can’t quite remember the details of. It isn’t about the job—no, killing comes easily enough to him, it has never bothered him before. Sergeant Briggs had taught him at least that much with his dying gurgle, hadn’t he? Opened a doorway for him, really, which was only right after what he had done to him.
If Moss has time to think about what’s rattling his nerves—and he does, and plenty at that—it is the waiting. Not the act of waiting in and of itself, of course—he is a patient man, after all—but where it is taking place, and when. No sane man or woman could feel at ease in his breeches, outside the city walls so late in Dusk, alone in a dusty wayshrine filled with nothing but too much quiet and stillness. It simply isn’t… natural.
And it certainly does not help, Moss broods, that he has had nothing to watch but the sun dragging itself to death, westward along the horizon, sinking all the while.
Three days’ waiting in such conditions… It takes a toll on a man.
And to think, all this for a quarry that may or may not come his way! Moss knows for a fact that two others were hired for the same job, posted at two different approaches to the city. He has the western approach, the Long Road along the river Forlorn.
That tells him something (just because he can’t read or write doesn’t mean he is completely witless!) about the job. He’s had time to think about who might be behind the intermediary that hired him, and who the quarry might be.
The first obvious thing is that whoever hired him and the two others is extremely wealthy. Two thousand thalirs for each man just for taking the job, with three thousand more for whoever gets the kill! Add to that the fee for the intermediary, which is usually one-fifth of whatever’s offered to the bloodletters, and the total sum comes to… to over ten thousand talirs, just to end one man’s life!
That is an unimaginable sum, wealth beyond any ordinary man’s wildest dreams. Two thousand alone is enough to let Moss drown himself in girls and wine for a year at the finest singing houses the city has to offer, and five thousand, well, with that kind of money… he could even get himself a proper wife who can read and write and bear him children.
No, there aren’t many in the city who can think of spending—let alone afford—that kind of money just to kill one man.
And that can only mean one thing: the ‘patron’ has to be of the Old Blood.
Moss can hazard a guess as to which one of the ancient and venerable houses wants to kill a man to the tune of ten thousand… and… eight hundred thalirs, but what good would that knowledge do him? None, absolutely none. In his professional experience, it is always better not to know who’s really behind a job. So long as you get paid for it, of course.
That leaves him with the quarry to think about. He has been given a physical description—no name—of a man in his thirties, tall, well-built, with dark hair and eyes. High cheekbones, eyes deep-set, with a forehead marred by the exile’s brand. Rather nondescript for a man whose life—or, more precisely, death—is worth so much silver.
Having had something of a taste of exile himself over the past three days, ill-sleeping in utter quiet, Moss can almost pity the poor bastard. If he is even alive enough to be making his way back to the city, that is. Just imagine, a man living in the No Man’s Land for however long a time, most certainly alone and constantly on the brink of starvation. His only hope is for Dusk to come and end his exile. And then, when it finally comes? He makes the gruelling journey across the desolate land, finds himself within the sight of the glorious city, only to meet death at the hands of a hired killer. Preferably, yes, at Moss’s own hands. There is a world of difference between two thousand and five thousand thalirs.
That there is a reason, Moss thinks, why you didn’t cross the Old Bloods. Why you stayed out of their affairs entirely.
He is curious as to what the man could have done that pissed off an old blood so—ten thousand and eight hundred talirs pissed—but he has no real way of knowing. A wrong thing said at the wrong place perhaps, a wrong man struck in fisticuffs that usually follows all the important races at the hippodrome. It doesn’t exactly take much to offend them, the Old Bloods.
Anyway time is running out, for both him and his quarry. Moss rode out of the city four days ago on the back of a mule, going against the last wave of refugees pouring into the city. It was just as the Lamentations began, which made it a good time to be away on the job, or so he thought, since he has no patience for all that praying and mourning and rending of clothes for the dying sun. But now, well, it’s getting a little too late in Dusk for comfort. He’ll give himself (and his quarry) one more day, Moss decides. No point risking Nightfall outside the city walls, even for three thousand talirs.
Having made the decision, Moss decides to step out for fresh air, maybe check on the mule.
He has to stoop low to get out of the shrine without hitting his head on the doorway. He straightens his back, stretches out the limbs. The sky is deep red and purple above him. The river flows to his right, across a strip of frozen wheatfield.
The mule is on the ground, asleep with legs tucked in. He has half a mind to wake it, but decides to leave it alone.
Then, as he turns to go back inside, he sees something that makes him swear.
A beast unlike any other, a gangling, shaggy, savage thing, ambling on its hindlegs along the road.
Moss begins to cross himself, only to realize midway that the beast is a man, a lone figure dressed in a ridiculous overcoat, walking, with a staff in hand, toward the great city of Havertham.
03/08/2015 § Leave a comment
It is the twenty-third day of Dusk.
On a steep hillside road some ways west of the city of Havertham, a man comes to a pause under a red sky. A lone traveller, road-worn and weary, leaning on a walking staff as he takes a sip from the waterskin. He is tall with wide shoulders and long limbs, has coarse dark hair and a beard that has grown too thick for his liking. His name is Horace Marten Shaw.
To the east of him the sun is a pale and bloody fist, clinging just above the jagged peaks of the Broken Reach. Its light is the colour of blood and honey, beautiful to behold but empty of life’s warmth. His wife, it occurs to him suddenly and in passing, would have a word for that exact colour, would know how to mix it too. But he, lacking her expertise, can only liken it to wine. Red wine, cold, being poured onto the world as in libation.
Aside from the too-low, too-large sun, the sky is mostly bare. A thin, ragged sheet of clouds hangs far ahead, no birds anywhere in sight. The winds are very still, which is unusual for this time of the year, this close to the mountains. It is, he thinks, as if the mountains themselves are holding their breath.
Held breath or no, the day is very cold. He can see his own breath clear as ghost, rising, rising. And looking at it, he can’t help but feel grateful for his overcoat, an abomination of many furs and leathers that has managed to keep him from freezing so far—if barely—despite its patchwork nature.
It will only get colder as the days go on, he knows. Frost has fallen and is thickening by day, and the earth has not fared nearly as well as he. A pity and a wonder, if one can call it that, how quickly the earth fades from the bleeding sun. How seamlessly, too, with an ease that almost borders on grace, drawing unto itself and abandoning all. There are copses of bare trees all along the road like so many skeletal hands.
It is perhaps the effect of this scenery, combined with that of his travel, the timing of it, the solitariness—but he finds himself craving a smoke. It has followed him for some time now, in fact, like a stray dog one has fed one too many times. He can feel it in his blood and beneath the skin, barking, growling, whining for attention. It doesn’t seem to matter that he hasn’t touched a pipe in over a decade, that he doesn’t even own one anymore (it was, he can still recall with faded bitterness, among the first casualties of his marriage). The craving is real. As real as anything in this forsaken place can get, anyway, laid bare under a dying sun.
There are other things he craves as well. Of course there are. How can a man, any man, be denied so much for so long and not have a long and considerable list? His includes a bath, for starters, followed by a close shave and a warm bed. After these come the races at the hippodrome, and rabbit-and-pigeon skewers from street stalls afterwards, and still after, the taste of spiced khav in tearooms where poets gather and measure their verses against one another. Even the din of the crowd on market days he longs to hear again, with rabble-rousing philosophers shouting atop their crates at every passersby. And drums at city gates, tolling morrow and eve, and women, singing by the river of love, loss, and everything in between, to the beat of wooden sticks on laundry. Yes, he craves all the sights and sounds and smells of the city, pleasant or otherwise. The sheer peopleness of it all. The glory and folly of life lived among others.
He has to take great care, however, not to include his wife and two sons in that list. Such things as hearing the boys’ absurd battle-cries (“You killed my father! Now prepare to die!” “You fool! I am your father!”) as they brandish their toy swords in the atrium, or watching his wife slowly undo her hair and garments at the day’s end… Those things, he has decided on the first eve of his exile, he cannot afford to crave. The longing will break him if he does. So he has taught himself, by necessity, to bury his loved ones where his thoughts can’t easily go. To think of them only fleetingly, distantly, like old acquaintances whose faces you can’t quite remember.
Mostly the trick works, though not always. Sometime the absence of a thing is no absence at all, and often, in the small hours between sleep and wakefulness, he finds himself in tears for no apparent reason. But he keeps at it, as he must, until such time as he is home and can see and touch and hear his loved ones in the flesh.
And that time, blissfully, happily, finally, is drawing near. Dusk has brought with it the full pardon of his status as an exile. Those who sentenced him aren’t likely to have forgiven or forgotten his “offence”—they are nothing without their pride and long memory, the Old Bloods—but the city’s ancient law is clear on the matter: no man or woman sentenced to banishment, whatever the duration of that sentence, shall be denied refuge from Nightfall. He is, as of twenty-three days ago, a free man.
There is irony in that, he thinks, that Dusk could spell glad tidings, that he should be glad while the world is fading away all around him. But he is not forgetting the dying sun (could not, even if he tried), or what that means for him and his prospect of returning home: time, even as it compels him homeward, is running out on him. This is only a husk of what the world has been, what lies ahead and behind him, the very ground he stands on. And this husk, this half-world, too will vanish when the sun drowns in less than a week’s time. Night is coming to engulf the world. Surely as one lives and dies.
And with that, whatever small happiness he has allowed himself to feel is snuffed out. Night can do that to you, even just a thought of it. It is enough to make him shiver, tremble; a cold, hard bitterness at the root of his spine. He resents the feeling, though he has cause to know, better than most, that fear is the proper response. The only response. He has seen what Night does to a person.
Deliberately, Horace looks away from the reddening sky and concentrates on the road ahead. Catches a glimmer doing so, and then a long gleam, near the horizon. It is something improbable: a flock of luminous birds, sweeping low across the land, utterly unexpected, and equally beautiful. He is breathless to look upon them until, suddenly, it dawns on him: they are, they have to be, a trick of dying light on flowing water.
There is no sadness in him for the imaginary birds. The river, which can only be a tributary of Forlorn, is as sure a signpost as any. He can follow it to the main body of Forlorn, and then tread the Long Road all the way to Havertham. Which means he is truly close, now. To home, family.
He takes a deep breath, adjusts the strap of his rucksack, and starts again, trying (and failing utterly) not to think of his wife and two sons.
03/18/2014 § Leave a comment
After Mom got herself killed, Miriam was the first to receive the call. She called me four times on her way to St. Paul’s. I was only three blocks away at Scotiabank Theatre with Joseph and Elaine but my phone was turned off. It was for Harry Potter. The twins had on their Hogwarts garbs, wands and all; I wore a sharpie lightning on my forehead, Elaine’s clumsy handiwork.
After the movie ended with a cliffhanger, after I checked my messages, we walked over to the hospital. Miriam met us outside and took over the kids. She told me she’d viewed the body and filled out the Notification of Death form but held off from signing it. She wanted me to do it. She took the kids to the cafeteria. I found my way down to the morgue.
Mom was lying on a gurney. The nurse pulled down the sheet so I could see her face. She looked quite dead. Eyes shut and lips sealed. For once she didn’t smell like alcohol or burnt plastic. I don’t know why that made me so angry but it did. I told the nurse to cover her up again.
The nurse handed me the NOD form. “This isn’t exactly legal,” he said, “but as long as you can verify the information your sister wrote down there shouldn’t be a problem.” Miriam had put down my name and address and phone number for everything. She’d even ticked the relationship box where it said I was Mom’s Executor. I signed the form and handed it over.
Afterwards, Miriam, the twins, and I walked over to their apartment in West End. Joseph was still mourning Dumbledore’s death with childish exuberance but Elaine had caught onto our unusual quietude. She asked me why we were at the hospital. I looked at Miriam. She gave me a shrug. So I told her, “Grandma passed away today.”
“Oh.” Elaine looked at her mom. Miriam nodded.
“Like Dumbledore?” Joseph chimed in. “Trevor says he’s only sort of dead!”
“Shut up,” Elaine told Joseph. Then she started crying. I picked her up and she clung onto me, sobbing bitterly into the side of my neck. I carried her the rest of the way with Joseph trailing behind; he kept apologizing without really knowing what for.
After we put the kids to bed Miriam and I went into the kitchen. She made coffee. It was paper thin and scalding hot but we sipped at it anyway.
“What do we do now?”
“I’ll call a funeral home in the morning,” she said. “You—you go take care of her things.”
Then we just sat there for a while, looking down at the matching IKEA mugs and not saying anything.
I got up. “I better get to work.”
Miriam walked me to the door. “Thanks for taking the kids out today,” she said. She gave me a little hug.
“They’re good kids,” I told her. “You’re doing a good job.”
Mom had been a junkie most of her life and it showed in her apartment. It showed in the sink full of dirty dishes and fungal blossoms; it showed in the expired perishables rotting in the fridge; it showed in the filth-encrusted toilet and the bin overflowing with soiled newspaper. And it showed, next to the yellowed bare mattress, in the instruments of her addiction: a bent spoon, boilerplate, half-empty box of Arm & Hammer.
It took me three hours to clean out the place. I didn’t find anything worth keeping except a photo of us all dressed up for Halloween. It was stuck on the kitchen counter, under an empty beer bottle long stripped of its label. I peeled it off as best as I could. I was Jack-o’-lantern and Miriam was some kind of fairy, both sitting on a couch looking vaguely bored; behind us was a life-size mirror in which Mom stood like a succubus or cat-woman, all leather and cleavage, her face obscured by the flash. Only the crescent of her lower lip hinted at her mood. I flipped the photo to its back, where she had written: een ’97. 48 days cle. I put it in my wallet.
Just as I was about to haul out the last bags of trash, Miriam called and asked if I needed any help. I told her I was almost finished. She invited me over for dinner. I said I would.
A woman was leaning against the wall in the hallway. She had greasy black hair and a terrible case of meth-mouth. One of her eyes seemed off—cloudier than the other. When she saw me, she stood off the wall. “You’re Sheila’s, yeah?”
“So she’s… dead then, is she?”
I didn’t answer.
“Fucking hell. I called the ambulance, you know?”
“I’m just cleaning out her things.”
I tried to brush past her but she didn’t budge.
“She left me something for you, hold on a sec.”
She slipped inside a door and then came back out after a minute or two. She was holding a paper bag from Whole Foods.
“I didn’t touch it, I swear. Okay? I thought about it, but I didn’t.”
I took it from her hand and looked inside: five DVDs; all of the Harry Potter movies so far, with Salvation Army price stickers. An ear of a card stuck out from between two of the volumes. I fished it out. On the cover were two little kids, a boy and a girl, flying an antique aircraft the likes of which would have roamed the skies of Europe during the First World War; Santa sat on one of the wings, dropping presents from his huge red sack. Inside it read, handwritten in small, neat cursive: To Elaine and Joseph, Merry Christmas, Love, Granma.
“Thank you,” I said to the methhead, and left before she could say anything else.
The dinner at Miriam’s was spaghetti with meat sauce and beet salad on the side. Everything was business as usual. Joseph was eager to finish the meal and return to SpongeBob Squarepants; Elaine was being peckish with the veggies. Her eyes were still puffy from the night before and when I teased her about them she kicked me under the table. I took some of the beets from her plate while Miriam wasn’t looking to redeem myself.
After the meal, Miriam sent the kids out of the kitchen with a bowl of ice cream each. She told me about the funeral arrangements she’d made. I said I would help with the cost and told her about what Mom had left for the twins.
“Let me see.”
“They’re in the car. But I have the card, here.”
I couldn’t make out her expression as she read it. I was sure that she didn’t know what she was feeling herself. She read the words over and over and over.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about this.” She handed it back to me. “You hold onto it. Until I figure it out.”
“Was there anything else?”
I shook my head.
I kissed the kids good night and left. It was raining. I hurried to my car. Once inside, I took out the photo and stared at the frayed message on its back. 48 days. How many hours was it? Minutes? Seconds? 48 days. Just shy of seven weeks.
I ripped the photo in half. Then I put together the torn halves and ripped them again, and again, until only a handful of fine photographic confetti remained in my hands. I rolled down the window and thrust out my hands. The rain and the wind licked them clean.
03/13/2014 § Leave a comment
Again Horace woke up before the first hour and watched the diminishing sun grasp at the mountains to the east. The coldness was almost in his bones. He sat up and bent his head, but the words faltered in his throat.
The others woke up shortly and by the first half-hour the men were well on their way, walking with haste. The road stretched downward and to the northwest and as they walked the hills gave way to flat meadows, a sea of dying grass, gray with frost, pockmarked here and there by withered shrubbery and odd groves of leafless trees.
At the first quarter of the third hour they stopped near a small pond to rest a spell. A thin sheet of ice had formed around the outer edges of water’s surface, that had to be broken before they could draw water.
As Horace knelt by the water and filled his waterskin, the old man from the day before joined him and said, “It won’t be long now.”
They sat by the pond and each took a long swig of the freezing pond-water.
“You played well,” Horace offered after some time.
“Ah. Thank ye— but it was a foolish thing to do, I think. They way it ended… You saw it yourself, did you not? It would have been better not to have sung those songs at all.” Then he shrugged and said, “As my father liked to say, ‘Only the dead can afford regrets.’”
Horace knew the rejoinder. “In life, death is the only regret.”
The old man raised an eyebrow, bemused and impressed at the same time. “Good earth! The wisdom of my forefathers, from an foreigner’s lips!”
At this, Horace allowed himself a meek smile. “I’ve walked this country a long time,” he said.
“Truly? Then you must know—” The old man’s voice trailed off and became almost a whisper. “You must know what’s been done to it.”
The smile vanished from Horace’s lips. Knowing where it would lead, he regretted having started the conversation, even as that regret turned to scalding shame. “I do,” he said soberly.
“What evil does man wreak upon his own kind…” The old man shook his head, pulling at a tangle in his beard, and after a long pause he began to speak, distantly, as much to himself as to his foreign interlocutor. “Before all this, before I came to be this sorry sight before you, I lived in Austihaven. Aye—Austihaven, born and raised. I owned a woolshop in Stone Quarter, nothing grand, no, but it was my pride and joy. I’d built it all on my own, from a little meat stall in Oldtown to a proper shop with four spinners and two weavers… Something a man could pass on to his children, when his time came.”
Here the old man swallowed hard, seemingly overwhelmed with his recollection. He took in a deep breath, held it, and let it our slowly. He went on.
“The war had been going on for the better part of three years. But the shop was getting on well, and the word on the street was peace, so when a breeder in Anderfoot wrote me he’d bred a honey-coat, I went to see it. That’s—that’s when it happened.”
“The Scouring,” said Horace, in a voice that was a groan and a whisper, feeling the sickness in his stomach.
The old man looked at him, stared as though he was seeing him for the first time. Then he closed his eyes, the deep and sunken lines making shallow graves of his orbits. It was the kind of look that made Horace want to gauge out his own eyes. But he could not allow himself to look away.
“When the news came, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—how could I? How could anyone? That such a thing is—could even be—thought of… But when I returned… What I saw… My wife, my sons and daughters, my little granchildren… And all my kin, my brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, cousins, uncles, aunts, all gone. Soul-sucked. Friends, family, everyone I’d ever known, just like that…”
Horace could not say that he was sorry, though the words tore at his throat like a clawed animal.
“I only wish I had died with them. I do not know why I go on like this—truly I do not.” The old man’s eyes were now open and filled with tears, the dying sunlight gleaming queerly on his pain.
Just as his own silence was becoming unbearable to Horace, the old man wiped at his eyes and cleared his throat. “Well. As my father liked to say, ‘Forgive an old man his memories.’ Tell me now, do you know the match for that one?”
“I’m afraid I do not,” said Horace.
“It goes: ‘And the young, his ambition.’”
Someone hollered that they were getting back on the road.
“Suppose we should get walking too.” The old man said and got up with a grunt.
Horace got up and followed him wordlessly.
03/12/2014 § Leave a comment
The march came to a halt at a small ruin atop a low hill, a place of charred earth and broken stones that might have been a sheepherder’s shack in better times. Under a crumbling stone wall, which made a poor shield against the mountain winds, the vagrants started a small fire for warmth. Everyone was exhausted. Even Horace, who was used to long marches and harsh countries, found no small relief in sitting down and rubbing his calves and feet. The years were gaining on him at last.
Soon after the fire was lit, a half-buried cauldron was found on the other side of the wall. A few of the vagrants dug it out and rubbed it clean of dirt and rust, and a man claiming to once have been a cook in Deephearth took it upon himself to make a proper meal for all. Each man was asked to contribute something toward the dinner, if he could. A small heap of shriveled onions and potatoes soon appeared at the cook’s feet, along with many sprigs of field herbs and pouches of cornmeal. A quarter hour later, with much aplomb, the cook pronounced the meal ready. It was a vegetable soup thickened with cornmeal that smelled better than it tasted, but everyone was eager for warm, cooked food, and many went for seconds.
Thus their bellies filled and warm, the men took to a rare show of spirit. Someone—the old man who had walked with Horace—produced a reed pipe, and another a ram’s horn, and together they began to play a tune. Sitting against the far end of the wall where he had laid his bedroll, and slowly drinking the lukewarm soup from a wooden bowl, Horace watched as men gathered in a semicircle around the fire and joined in song.
Old ballads they sang, old hill songs and valley songs, songs from a bygone era and a bygone world both untamed and raw, unknown to Alchemy and tramways and blackpowder. They sang of loved ones who killed one another for honour and stone-hearted killers who died of love, of shepherds and goatherds who settled their grievances with a skip of a stone, and of guileless men who traded their children for fae-gold under oak trees, and of children, thus forsaken, that gave up their hearts and grew up to be stalkers of the woods. It was a world full of stories, a world told and sung in stories, and they sang as though their voices, united and whole, might bring back the storied world and restore all that they had lost in this one. Austerland, Austerland, they sang, of our bones, these rolling hills. But what was lost, when their voices grew hoarse and weak, was still lost. Distant, fading, long and irrevocably gone.
The music quietened gradually, and then all at once. Silence, once suffered, was quick to smother out what small joy the vagrants might have found in their own voices. One by one they shuffled to their places under the wall, wrapped themselves against the chill, and fell ruefully to the bright sleep of the dispossessed.
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He was traveling with some men he had met on the road a few days past, men in fraying coats and overworn boots, men of fields and lumber camps and country roads, drifters and vagrants all. Together they made a lowly flock headed for the city of Ardour’s Rest, the only place in the Eastern Territories where men such as they might find refuge for the coming Night. There were about twenty of them, and most, if not all, judging by their accent and common talk, were Austerlings whose livelihoods had been destroyed for one reason or another during the Miners’ War.
By the last quarter of the first hour the camp was awake, and the men broke their fast on a meager feast of cornmeal and hot water, emptied their bladders and bowels on the frosted field, and set off northward along the road.
Talk was scarce. The day was colder than the one before it, and they knew they had only a few days to reach the city. Once Night rose, no city would willingly open its gates for a group of vagrants.
Horace walked alone at the tail end of the procession. He did not know the names of the men he traveled with, nor was he inclined to. He was not one of them, not truly, and the men knew he was not. Just as he had placed their origin by frequent, measured pauses in their speech and a slight upward inflection that gave it a songlike quality, they heard the harshness of his consonants and knew him to be a native son of Havertham. He’d seen it dawn on their faces after the first few words had been spoken, and had prepared himself to be shunned. But uneasy as they were, the men allowed him to join them, and shared with him what little they had to eat and drink. They saw that he too was a vagrant and a drifter, and as he had learned time and again wandering the Eastern Territories, a strange sort of camaraderie lived among those to whom their own existence was far less than a gift. And Horace for his part was glad for their company, for it rendered the dying of light a little less unbearable.
They walked until fifth hour and stopped to rest their legs for a quarter, then set off again and walked until the eighth. The road was uneven. The horseshoe-shaped valley widened gradually as they walked but the mountain winds reached them just as bitterly. Near the flat of the valley, the group came across a wreckage of an oxcart in a ditch and later saw many cairns on the roadside. Some of the men stopped briefly to pay their respects.
Soon afterward, Horace was joined by an old man he did not know, broad-shouldered and thick of waist, who wore a great white tangle of a beard flecked with dirt and grime and walked with an impressive gait despite the visible bend in his spine. When their eyes met the old man said, “No man should walk alone, when in company of others.” Horace bowed his head in gratitude.