A Step in the Great Journey - Part 1
Slowly, slowly, these things become:
A bleeding thread of light against murky, blue-purple darkness. A slit vein haloed in harvest gold; bright, fading off into grey-dark, red-hued sky. Sounds at a level with his head, teasing omnipresent, refusing to be still, to be distinct enough to tell him where they come from – chirping, buzzing, humming, a softly pitched thrum. Belatedly the slow blossom of pain, of cold, a first sense of constraint, wetness, of being tangled in something soft and sodden. An uneven, jabbing pain that won't be still, or fall evenly enough to be predictable.
Stop. Stop. He thinks he should try to turn the thought into sound. But how? The size of the concept......
The pain is insistent, and a noise to his left threatens to become comprehensible. A shadow
falling over him, a shape looming.
“Do you hear me then?”
It's a woman's voice, booming even while it's soft and edgeless.
“Do you hear me?” Jab. Jab. She won't stop.
I can hear you. But it doesn't come out as words, just as sliding, slurping sounds that trip over his big tongue and big lips. And then the world lurches in such sudden violence that he thinks the ground is falling away, sliding downhill, being swallowed from below. And new jabs of pain come along with it, harder and rougher. It's only then that his head clears enough to know that she's helping him to sit – more dragging him than helping him, his weight is limp and uncooperative -he'd had no thought of sitting, moving, thinking, until she'd thrust it upon him.
And still: “Thanks.” It needs to be said.
She's there in his face: rough, rounded, freckled; her rugged curls are black and tight, hovering like insects around her face. A fisher girl. A riverman's woman. His mind moves at two speeds, on two levels, trying to imagine her life and lineage, assessing her age and attractiveness, while at the same time still gawping, still wrestling down the concepts of up and down and distance.
“You hurt bad?” she's asking him.
“I....” So I'm hurt? Who wielded the knife? And when and where? Because he feels he shouldn't be here, and can't make a proper guess of where here is.
Squatting down at his side she asks him: “What's your name, Master?”
And only in the struggling seconds following it, realising that he doesn't have an answer, doesn't have answers to all the questions that attend on that one, does he understand how bad things might be.
He's sitting on the edge of riverbank, that much he can make sense of, and his vision is settling down enough to let him see things as they are. The blood-red-gold wound in the sky is a rich winter sunset; a late twilight has all but swallowed it up. The river is thick and grey and weed-choked – a huge braided river, stretching out wide, coiled with different coloured channels, islands of gravel, and sometimes hardy plantlife. On the other side he can see a near eternity of long grass and blue-green flowers. On this side, cushioned by grasses and walls, amidst great, swollen rocks, there is a village of sorts. At least he thinks so – that some of the grass is thatch, and some of the squatting rock formations are the sturdy, long-lived huts he thinks are favoured in the east.
East of where? And why? Because it's dawning on him larger with every second that he has no idea who he is, why he is here, or where he meant to go? He thinks he's come across a simple, nucleated fishing village, supplemented by pottery, weaving, a few crops and herds, but he can't remember how he might know this, or how, come to that, he might know what sorts of dwelling would be favoured in the east.
Her voice is the kind that draws him to look at her.
“Can you tell my your name?”
“I can't. I don't know it.”
“You been floating in the water. Maybe it's no wonder. But memories often as not come back from such things.”
“I saw you. I dragged you out.”
He's already thanked her, saying it again seems redundant, and yet.... what else might he say? “I'm... grateful. Most.... most grateful.”
“You seem like a fancy sort?
“Your shirt. Yourboots.”
He only then thinks to look down at himself. A red shirt, a blended weave of silk and wool. It's soaked to a blood-like shade, clinging and torn, but was once fine enough; and a good linen undershirt rests underneath. His boots are good leather, and seem hardly worn. A great nobleman? Or a better thief? And he wonders what he looks like – this stranger that he is. The water's too
murky to tell him, and he doubts these people have a mirror.
She says “I should call you something.”
“Yes.” But his mind flies away from him trying to conjure names up. Have I forgotten them all?
“You look like a Gondrian.”
“Do I?” What do I look like? His hair is longish, a light brown, badly tangled, maybe lighter than this once it dries. His hands are a young man's hands, and three of his fingers have rings on them.
“You do. Like a man I once knew who had that name.”
“I should ask of your name.”
“Menilta. Most people call me Nil.”
Nil. Nothing. It seems unlucky.
“You have me at a disadvantage, Nil.”
“You're bleeding. And you're half drowned.” She seems to be a practical sort: “You'll have to lean on me to walk, I don't think I can carry you, but it isn't far. You can see from here.” The cunning little
houses – moss-ridden stone topped with thatch, hardly separate from the landscape surrounding them. He'd been right. And he gasps out a yelp of pain as she lifts him to his feet and shifts him against her. He's more dead weight than he wants to be; he tries, but his feet can't keep time with each other, and his legs feel like long bags of sand hanging off his hips. And when he moves, he relearns what pain is all about – every step conjures up a new, red, dizzying wave. He thinks for a while that he's walking on the sky. He thinks how much softer her hair is than he thought it would be, his cheek resting slack against hers.
He dreams. Or half dreams. The pain of movement, the jarring of his feet against the earth, the tugging open of rough wet flesh: these all sink their teeth into his dream and break its direction.
He finds himself in darkness. He finds himself floating.
And the the sky opens up. He doesn't know how to make sense of it, except that the heavens have been set on fire. Bursts of light explode in the air, wiping out the stars. The colours begin in whites and pale greens, grey, grey-blue, and then heat into reds and oranges, flashes of lightning yellow. For a moment - a glimpse - there's such brightness that he can see the unending plain – see bones and bodies, flesh wreckage, end upon end upon end, arranged where catastrophe has dropped them...
A voice: “Nearly there.” The sharp pain of his legs bumping over the threshold into a low-ceilinged cottage.
In the house he's the centre of a great stir – a flurry of voices and movement, the flashing of colours, the cracking of sparks as a fire is stoked. There are hands on him, peeling away his fine clothes,
words in his ear that he can't quite follow, but the tone is comforting. Gondrian gives himself over to their care, he gives himself over to not having to think. It's enough just to feel the warm fire, clean straw, the smells of goatskin and gravy, herbs, dung, crushed grass. It's enough just to listen.
“I tell you I found him there, floating in the river. He'd be drowned if he'd been floating face down. What else was I to do except to go fetch him?”
“You don't know what trouble he might bring with him.”
“Or what reward.”
“Feeding and nursing. Little else.” A man's voice.
Another woman's: “But to leave him drowning?”
“Aye. No doubt. Though he might be a thief.”
The first girl's voice – his rescuer – he recognises that, and she seems so very ardent in his defence: “He's a fine sort. Just look at him.”
“Or he robbed a fine sort.”
“His hands are too soft for it.”
“A thief works no harder than a nobleman.”
“He don't seem like no thief. He don't know who he is.”
A thief for all I know. A murderer. It catches in his mind: how can he know that he isn't a man he should loathe? Why not a murderer? His secrets are even from himself: and so vulnerable, without his will to protect them, with no guard on his tongue, no understanding.
Nil comes over with a soup bowl. She waits while he levers himself up. He can feel the tug of his wounds, and looking down: he's been cleaned and stitched, and some sort of prickly covering pressed over the injury. He can see the beginnings of bruising all around it.
“Eat.” She says handing him the bowl.
“I don't want to cause you any trouble....”
“No trouble. He only likes to moan for its own sake. The children are fascinated by you.”
Bright eyes in shadowed faces: two small figures crouch in the corner, paying him deep attention. Maybe strangers are no common thing around here.
“I should repay you.” He starts tugging at his rings.
“I must. You've saved my life after all.” Who cut me and who drowned me though?
The biggest ring – a thick work of silver, set with chunky, chiselled turquoise – is the one that comes off most easily. He presses that into her hand. “Please.”
And that brings the man over, his interest now piqued. And Nil is smiling smugly at him. Gordrian feels as if he's aided her in some small victory against him, feels glad of it. The man is Sugvern, and
a fair-haired woman behind him is Maylez; he waves his hands backwards at the two staring figures – two sets of eyes named Minsola and Fanreck. “Here,” Nil says, “A gift from Gondrian. Our guest.”
He is pleased – over soup, and then over some oily meat he's not sure he wants to know the origin of – to know that she is the sister of the house, not wife or daughter. Sugvern is her brother, Maylez a young wife, and the twins – two years old before the season next turns – are hers and his. Nil helps keep house for her brother, helps with the children, helps out in the fields, with the grass, with the river. And in full night-time, illuminated only by firelight, she seems achingly inviting, her dark curls all reddened – dark over stuttering fire; a hint of a sparkle in her cheeks, redness reflected and glittering in her dark eyes.
She's happily telling the two little ones a story, with each of them calling interruptions and trying to carry the story away themselves. The girl is gathered up in her mother's arms, but goes on listening,
wide-eyed, to her aunt.
Sugvern watches Gondrian with some interest. “You remember nothing at all then?”
“Well, you're a long way from home I should think. I've not seen the style of your clothes in these parts before.”
“Huh. Good question. These are the Sannivalle Plains, all around us from one sky to the next. We're on the banks of the great Tirriben. Does that mean anything to you?”
Those words: they scratch on the inside of his skull. He's heard them... somewhere.... Gondrian shakes his head, still a little bit drugged with near-drowning, still breathing gingerly from a deep gash in his side, from smaller wounds littered all over his flesh.
Nil observes “You're healing all right. That wound was clean, and I don't think it punctured anything vital.”
Sugvern says “It was a knife wound.” He searches for signs in Gondrian that he knows a lot more than he reveals.
Search all you will. I don't. And yet.... things do tug at his mind, less than memories, less than images, but he can feel them all the same. He notices something hanging up on the wall, it's a musical instrument of sorts, not unlike a small, elongated harp. If he ever knew the name of it he doesn't now. But he gestures towards it.
Nil fetches it for him.
“This. It's fine.” He's not sure how he knows that.
“Our grandfather, this was his.”
“May I?” Can I? That's closer to the question. Why should his fingers know the map of such a thing? And yet they seem to. The strings feel natural under his fingers, like old friends, or kin. He can find a melody in them, a song he doesn't remember.
The family stare.
He sings. He doesn't choose to do so, his voices just awakens to the notes his fingers are playing, and his own voice astonishes him: so sweet, so full of layers of tones, it fills the whole room, projecting out to the walls, and echoing back again:
The silver maid of Cad-le-a-call
Wrapped in light, of silvery night, in flesh-searing mist, she falls
The golden son of the Cavvarrien plains,
He mounts his fine horse, his light in his hands, he hunts her remains
Come dark, come dusk, he hunts her remains
Through dark, through storm, through war, wracked and torn
Though he scarcely remembers the way that he came
Come dark, come dusk, though the fire comes on, until grey-ashes morn.
He looks up at the wide eyes. “I'm sorry.”
“No....” Sugvern murmurs.
Nil says “You're a bard.”
“A true bard.” Maylez gives every impression of being quiet, shy, a little lost in her own life, but she speaks now: “A bard of true calling. Aren't you?”
“I don't know....”
“To sing like that... You must be.”
“I don't know the song.”
don't remember, but you do know. You know all the songs.”
reaches to touch the back of his hand. “It's true. Play again.”
He's all at once afraid to. He gives the strange and familiar instrument back to her. “I'm tired. I'm sorry.”
“Of course. Sleep.”
Those lines of song have made a difference - his situation amongst them. He's not sure he knows what it means. And he's tired. His injuries feel as if they're dragging him down, he's only too willing to sink back into the sheepskins and welcome the darkness.
Instead he dreams. And the darkness is quickly obliterated by painful explosions of light.
He's standing on hard ground, staring up at a sky that's deep and oily, punctuated by white stars; and the world around him impenetrably dark. Suddenly the sky is alive, explosion of light, as pale as the stars, seem to break the sky open, and the darken as they go on, going silvery, green, gold, black-red. They wipe out the stars. And in them he sees the faces, he sees diamond eyes; teeth; long snouts; flat, grizzled visages; he sees wings open as the lights flare. He sees inside them. No simple explosions, but these things live; creatures in the shape of dragons – in the shape of beasts he can't name, couldn't dream up, always winged, always huge and bright – woven out of pure energy, out of colour, with their mouths wide open, roaring, rending the heavens into nothing.
And as in heaven - when the light flashes, when it reveals the ground - it's littered with destruction, with the tangled shells of the dead. Like flattened corn. They spread like the plains, sky to sky,
touching all the horizons.
Nothing else left.
Nothing else is left.