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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