ON THE HORSESHOE PLATEAU
It was a long time since even the people who followed Littlegrumble had climbed to the plateau of Albin Nhue, and there had already been frith folk there when they arrived. In all that long time they had settled closely into the landscape around them, altering it little by little as they learnt as much about the place as was humanly possible. They made few substantial changes, their numbers and inclination mitigating against it.
The forest children themselves were mostly short and broad, though flexible and rarely running to fat – except, perhaps, late in life. Their skin-tone was anything between a rich olive and alabaster white, while their hair – usually straight – could be yellow or orange or bronze, black or brown or even white. Their clothing was loose and informal, with flimsy flights in summer and round furs in winter.
There was as great a potential for contentment there as perhaps can ever be reasonably expected. This is a special place. Hardly without the travails experienced by all people – not least having to deal with other individuals: however reasonable in their own minds, for people do not always agree. And there were threats from outside and natural disasters.
But the frith folk had wrought lives for themselves without too many unnecessary stresses and attacks.
It was well past noon the next day before Qhey woke to see the rest of the party just stirring. They did not rush, though a couple of them rose to light the fire and collect and heat water for drinking and washing. The brew was not the tea of Qhey’s old home, but the herbs infused in it gave a nutty and invigorating flavour that set one up for the day.
During which they did little. They told Qhey it was a rest day, though from what exactly and how many they had was not made clear. They were wanderers, they said, throughout the warm part of the year, as their ancestors had been since before the advent of the first Forest King, though most had permanent dwellings for the winter.
But that is far away. We’ll be moving on tomorrow. You’re welcome to join us.
Qhey was now ready, however, to forgo his wandering life, and wished to find the centre from where the calling voice surely originated, though he did not mention it: Can you help?
And of course they could, and did: two of them – Hu-Limd and Ra-Kydd – agreeing to accompany him to Bok Heliox Trhyon, the capital of the Forest King’s realm. It was a journey of only half-a-dozen days, and easy for three for whom a peripatetic life in the woods was, or had become, normality.
Although he could not have known it, Qhey had climbed to the semi-circular plateau of Albin Nhue not far to the east of the series of waterfalls and rapids by which the main outflow from almost all the rainfall which fell on the inner slopes of Al Oast En Mror left the plateau: the Hei-Rait River, with Lake Dri-Aloe near its northern inflow. This essentially flowed through the centre of Albin Nhue, wide and gentle, except as it approached the narrow series of forces that fell down to the broad lowlands of the Greater Forest.
The three travellers cut north-west for the first day, occasionally skirting immense groves of fluttering aspens, twice the size of those of Qhey’s home, to reach a small landing-stage that evening where they negotiated for the loan of a canoe for the following morning. It was late spring, one of the world’s finest seasons, especially for travelling, with lushness and fecundity everywhere, with the daystar pushing towards hot, but the air just warm and the vegetation not yet tired and the landscape therefore not yet desiccated.
So, for four days, they paddled up the Hei-Rait River, passing through the heights of the Aywa Break on the second day.
They camped ashore each night with others. Sometimes these were those who worked small plots, growing staples that took too long just to gather, but more often they were those who travelled, for some of the year at least, usually by boat. Some of them had houseboats, with intricately painted cabins and vividly dyed awning, but more camped ashore. They ate a lot of fish.
It soon became clear to Qhey that the banks were not blocks of forbidding forest, for there were many tributaries, small lakes, glades and settlements. Huge sallows were the most prominent trees, their many trunks allowing a breeze through.
It was the fourth day before they reached Send Ehros – a vast, curved lake, with trees running down to much of its shore, and decorated with many islands and peninsulas. The largest of these was Burn Haun, which thrust out from its northern edge, surrounded by its own satellite islands: Bok Heliox Trhyon was built on both the islands and the peninsula.
That fifth evening the three travellers made a simple camp above a landing-stage on a peninsula to the east of the outflow of the Hei-Rait River. It was the only night before crossing Send Ehros when they did not camp among others.
The next day was a long one of paddling across towards Burn Haun, and it was dusk by the time they approached, though they had set off at dawn. By then the lights were showing along the shores and in the trees behind; but they did not want to enter the city, so they paddled further north – beyond the lights – to another landing-stage, tying up there to camp for the night.
The next morning they discussed exactly what to do. Now he was near to the sought-for centre, Qhey did not want to go into any built-up place even though Bok Heliox Trhyon sounded unlike any city Qhey had known or heard of on Earth, for his companions had told him a fair amount about the Forest King’s capital in the past few days, yet he was still uncertain about seeing too many people, close together, all at once, after so long wandering.
This suited Limd and Kydd absolutely fine: lots of people were not to their tastes either.
So Limd took Qhey eastwards to his sister’s, Ch-Shel being very used to house guests, for him to settle into what was a new realm and way of life for him, before both Limd and Kydd set off for the south again. Food and clothing – his had by now become very dilapidated – were freely given; all that seemed to be asked in return was a little help about the place and that he tell of his experiences, with occasionally questions about how he had found out about the forest folk‘s realm and what he thought of it. He repeated the stories the old sprite had told him, and found somewhat to his amazement that Lasith had got them more right than wrong.
He finally decided against telling of the voice that had called to him for so long, even before he had crossed the Transcending Sea. Who knew how these otherwise gentle and tolerant people would then perceive him? And where they would put him? And it was not calling any longer.
He stayed with Shel throughout that summer and down through the winter when Limd returned and taught him to skate and fish the ice-lakes, and he started to carve pieces of wood he had collected in the summer.
And when Qhey heard about the concept of enriching one’s life and surroundings through creativity followed by the frith folk, he felt it was something he had been looking for all his life.
He was introduced to old Tr-Hyer, who lived in the nearby village of Arlan. Tr-Hyer was the only other person he met in all his time on the Horseshoe Plateau who had travelled beyond the Forest Realm; in his case it was west to the shores of the Inland Sea.
When spring arrived Qhey was ready to move out. Shel and Limd told him of a cabin on the far side of the River Praxus, upstream a way, and conveniently closer to Arlan; it needed to be repaired but, with Limd’s help – before he set off again on his summer jaunts – it was soon done.
The cabin was not large, just a couple of rooms, but its walls were able to be raised to give width beyond the narrow roof, acting as awnings against the summer’s heat and rain. It took some time for Qhey to get used to this, who had grown up in northern climes and was therefore familiar with the desire for every bit of sun to fall on outdoor spaces. But Albin Nhue, though high, was a considerable way south, and the sun was fierce even if the plateau avoided the humidity of the lowlands surrounding it. It did not have a garden, for such a delineative concept did not exist there, but Qhey tended the land in the cabin’s glade, even growing some vegetables – from habit as much as need – to supplement what he gathered.
Beyond there were soft-flaked birches, slumbering oaks that swayed fabulously when stirred, and smooth-grey ashes whose crimson-startled leaves’ billowing were majestic, all giving a serene backdrop to Qhey’s new home.
That second summer on the Horseshoe Plateau he spent about his cabin, swimming in the waterways, and exploring the near landscape. He collected seeds and berries, some to eat, some to plant, for the frith folk’s diet was too fish-heavy for his liking: he had had enough of them when travelling. He developed a great fondness for wingnuts, great copses of which grew close and about.
And how am I now? Now I have reached and settled in this land I have dreamt of – in one form or another – since I was a child in that city of smoke and choking. Much about my dreams has changed since my first imagined land with my toy soldiers and crude drawings, but I can discern a continuum from there, through my house in the border hills, the dreams that Dunchideock could be a New Jerusalem, to the tales Lasith told me.
There are more troubles here than would be ideal: but if I stay away from people then dark and lonely shades always come after not-too-long an interval. No place – however desirable – can entirely protect me from memories and black predilections. Even with no pressure now felt, with (in the newly-discovered, nearby enchanted place) the upholding, lofty boughs of green and yellow of a living cathedral, dust-mote free, where leaves flutter as if rattled by a choral uplift.
For sometimes I see wonder.
The shades do come, however, even when I see and deal with people; yet so does a rootedness complimentary to soil and leaves. I make a few friends – retaining especially Shel and Limd – and join in their music and celebrations. They’ve given me a fife to play. I stick at it and am improving. But I’d rather beat a drum.
And then I saw her.
She stopped his steps, causing him to turn and stare, though she seemed not to notice, not unlike his previous experiences; but instinctively he felt she meant more, was more, than just another woman in his personal parade of wanting. He was sure this time.
She was beautiful – they all were to him, of course – walking by the lakeshore, head down, wearing only white. A colour that could indicate mourning. Singing a song of grieving.
He saw her, day after day, making sure he did. Wondering how to approach her. He asked around subtly, but found the forest people talked freely without giving away personal information.
He tried to build his confidence, eating a touch less, doing a bit more, and tidying his appearance. Edging closer. Then walking with wide steps. Pretending to be bold.
He stood so she saw him – trimmer and with his long hair cut neatly – and waited. They conversed briefly. Then more: over a long time.
There are these red-hot dream-slots when I imagine how she will look divested of even her flimsy shroud. Perhaps it is arrogance that allows me to think so, or possibly an indication of my desire that gives me the thought, even the confidence, the drive, to think I can alleviate the stupor of her loss enabling us to move to a place where such intimacy could take place.
Yet Qhey did take a chance. She said Yes. They walked out.