6: Of His Passage South
With his desire to steer clear of the robbing glare of the Indracian realms around the land of the five lakes Michael passed through the wilder part of Seouleato on the far bank of the River Bradea on his way south. Yet it was still a welcoming land, its culture somewhat akin to that of Pohjah, but mediated by the less harsh climate. And he passed through without trouble, though he felt a sense of trepidation flowing strongly down from the heights of the Flay Mountains to the west, and there was – of course – the unease emanating from the land of the five lakes to the east. This lessened after he crossed the Lehtijoki River, close to the great expanse of the Myrcewald’s eaves, and followed that border till the Verdreat Hills blocked his way. He was disinclined to climb through them, and could therefore take either the northern way through farmland, or pass to the south through the forest.
He decided on the southern way: keep going south, that was clearly the preordained way.
Michael had loved the idea of vast forests since as far back as he could remember, though all he had seen previously were small, managed woods not that much larger than those on the Isle of Thursey. But the Myrcewald was nothing like he had imagined.
As he went to lead Uffatun beneath the trees he heard one harsh crock, just one, high above and away behind; and that was the last time he was aware of his solar guide till he turned to head north and east again after he had journeyed far to the south.
The part of the forest they entered was managed, as were most of the eastern fringes of that immense forest, though not all in the same way. That part in Seouleato was run, as all the country seemed to be, by a conglomerate of overlapping arguments with enough balance, goodwill and humanity to work. But, though managed, the forest was still nothing like anything Michael had experienced or imagined. It was heavy and slow and damp, not just a bigger ‘little wood’, but something very different. He had thought it would be like being in a wild orchard, or a spinney, with the only differences being the regularity and scale, but the whole place felt so incongruent with those smaller managed areas he had known as to be another realm of nature entirely.
It was an immense, unforgiving expanse of nature, too raw, and he could not take it for long, though he continued to think of himself as someone dedicated to wilderness, if of less hemmed-in varieties.
So he turned Uffatun back towards the Verdreat Hills till they came to the slopes where sheep grazed. He turned to his right then, riding all the way down to where the Myrcewald reached the River Bradea. There he crossed over into the eastern part of Seouleato and followed the waterway downstream.
Soon he passed into the ancient Kingdom of Nineveh, but found it too crowded and too smelly and too rigid for his liking. And he hated the people looking at him askance on his tall mare, though he was not attacked. So he continued onwards, crossing the Erlito River and passing down into Parasalaya till he found himself in the southern city of Hima-Puram.
7: Of Meeting Rohin
While journeying Taru earned his keep as an ioculer, singing in taverns and karvansera. Although he tried a few jigs, reels and slow airs on his flute, it was to his accompanied singing that he increasingly turned to as it seemed to be what his audiences preferred. And they were usually appreciative, till that fateful day in Hima-Puram.
There he also found that the name ‘Michael’ made him stand out too much, even attracting hostility (unless that was because of his pale skin), and that no one in Parasalaya seemed to have more than one name; so he adopted the name ‘Taru’, and for long after was primarily known by it.
But on that fateful day, in a dilapidated karvansera with broken tiles and a dripping fountain, for reasons he could not afterwards make sense of, he decided, after performing a couple of well-received songs (especially by a crumpled drunk), to sing one of his own compositions, Heaven is Where the Sun Shines, about how much better it was to live in the sunny south than the wet north. Forgetting that Parasalaya was suffering from its worst draught in many centuries. Maybe he should have been more aware of the disquiet and nervousness with which it was viewed by those living through it, but he was from a place where too much rain, not too little, was considered the problem, and where his view of warm and sunny places was the norm; hell was likely to be perceived as somewhere of ice or everlasting grey.
Yet this audience’s violent reaction was still disproportionate, even from one that had been drinking; it was all he could do to duck behind the dipping fountain and hide behind a table already upturned, clutching his cithern to him. He did not know how things would have gone otherwise if one of the rioters had not shouted There he is! while pointing out of the courtyard, thus misdirecting the mob.
The source of this misdirection soon revealed itself to be the same crumpled man who had so loudly greeted Taru’s first songs. He came over and helped the ioculer to his feet, at the same time holding out a placating hand to the owner of the karvansera.
“Don’t be too hard Kanti, there’s no more damage than at the end of a usual night in here.”
“But my customers …”
“… will be back in shortly to drink all the more as they discuss the impertinence of this foreigner.” But in an aside to Taru he added: “Just collect your things – quickly.”
“He’d better not want paying,” said Kanti, gesticulating towards Taru with what could not be a polite gesture, “after all he’s been and caused and with all the outlay I’ll have to make – he should better be paying me what with …”
“We’ll count everything as settled – breakages and tabs,” said the ioculer’s rescuer, tossing a few coins towards the owner.
Taru could hear Kanti’s grumbling continuing as he and his belongings were hurried out into the street, quickly down one side alley and up another; not even the most brain-dead mob could take long to grow tired of chasing a quarry nowhere to be found.
His rescuer – introduced as Rohin – led him to another, markedly different, karvansera. Its furnishings were also bare, the customers few and the fountain still, but there was no stagnant pool and the mosaic on the floor was kept in repair.
The owner – Ananda: small, neat, with greying hair – welcomed them and shown Taru to a room. It was spartan and cramped, though clean, and looked out through a shuttered window onto the neat courtyard below. After the shock of the potential violence of the lynch-mob Taru felt he could allow himself to relax. He lay on the bed and, unsurprisingly, slept for a few hours.
Later, over their evening meal, Rohin said: “As I rescued you, it seems fair that you should tell me about yourself first. And how did you get to sing such a song in Kanti’s rundown place?”
So Taru spoke, albeit somewhat sparingly, of the isle of his birth and his travels north and then south, ending with: “I don’t know Hima-Puram well, I’ve not long arrived this far south; I just summon up the courage and go and ask. But that was my roughest reception yet.”
“Not a great surprise, suggesting that we in the hot and dry south should appreciate we have the better lot.”
“It’s the common perception where I come from.”
“But in the middle of a drought!”
“I know. I should’ve known better.”
“Yes, you should have. And you should take more care. You must understand how precious water is, only in abundance after violent storms that bring more damage than succour; and how afraid we are of the sand-laden winds from the southern deserts that threaten to overwhelm us; and of the desert Brama with their ill-conceived hatred of us. It’s even worse in the cities further south, Jod-Puram and Jalam-Vacam.”
“You should listen to him,” said Ananda as he collected the dishes, indicating Rohin. “I’ve lived here all my life, but he travels around. Sees things. He knows. It’s bad here, but if he says it’s worse elsewhere then you can be assured it is.”
“The sand and drought are definitely getting worse,” Rohin continued. “There’s now no rain at all and the water tables are low. There is resentment of foreigners even at the best of times, but now some accuse you of draining our precious supplies – as if a few of you make any difference. It’s our own incompetence, greed and corruption that are undermining our stability.”
“I’ve not seen anyone else from the north here,” said Taru.
“No, they don’t come now,” said Ananda, having lingered to hear Rohin’s summary. “Rarely ever did. The world’s kinder to them. There are fewer and fewer people even from the northern cities with which we have much in common. I don’t blame them.
“Some people here have taken to railing against those cities of our same blood; such people will not distinguish between those from northern Parasalaya and those from the temperate lands beyond. They don’t understand or care about the difference.”
“The preaching of these sects will only add to our troubles,” added Rohin.
Ananda clattered away with the denuded dishes; Rohin and Taru soon repaired to rest.
The following morning they chattered again, with Rohin explaining his origins and Taru saying a little more of his history, before Ananda bustled in, starting to talk as soon as he entered:
“Someone’s been here asking after you, Rohin. And I bet they mean no good.”
“What leads you to suppose …?” asked Rohin.
“Tone of voice and unclean language. And threats against your person. He didn’t know your name, but he had a fine description: a lean, straggly, sun-wrinkled harriman. Do you know who it was, and what this is about?”
“Yes, I think I can guess.”
“And are you going to say?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Rohin paused and looked around him, as though to judge his safety there. “I think we’d better make sure to leave here as soon as it’s possible to do so inconspicuously.”
“Now?” asked Ananda. “This evening?”
But Taru said: “We?”
“No. Now and we would be too easily seen; and in the dusk we would be too unusual.”
We?” repeated Taru; and then he added: “Unusual?”
“People don’t tend to leave the city as night approaches unless they’re Brama or up to no good,” said Rohin.
“Or both,” said Ananda.
“Right,” Rohin agreed. “And yes, I thought you‘d like to come with me, have a guided and informative journey …”
“… including how and when to leave without attracting attention …” interjected Ananda.
“… and visit Udy-Anam-Puram, its gardens and my family.”
This appealed to Taru. He was used to travelling alone – in itself that held no terrors for him, though he did sometimes get lonely – but it would be pleasant to have someone with him who knew the country’s ways.
So that was decided, with Ananda lending Rohin a horse and Taru sending for Uffatun. As he said: “One of the reason for my slightly thread-bare appearance and why I try to make a few coins by singing in disreputable karvansera is that I spend a fair portion of my money on ensuring that my steed gets the housing and care befitting her stature.”
8: Of the Attack of the Copper-Ratchets
The travellers passed out of Hima-Puram the following morning and headed northwards, with little trouble, though the weather was dry and dusty and constantly unpleasant, with frequent dust-storms. Indeed there was only one occasion in all their travelling across Parasalaya when it was other, with a mist coming upon them as the sun nudged past its zenith. They were only a couple of days out from Udy-Anam-Puram.
The road was curving around and about the low hills of that region, and they could see the Eiso-Ganga River below and the irrigation ditches and irrigated fields as an immense chessboard of various hues of green and golden brown when no low heights barred their view. Both the travellers were looking forward to more comfortable nights than those in the karvanseras they had been frequenting; Rohin had been generous in his praise of his sister’s cooking and the restfulness of his father’s dwelling.
But that early afternoon, as they threaded their way through the old and terraced hills in a region where most of the terraced fields looked neglected, they became aware of a cloud billowing up towards them. This as such was not uncommon, they had already been caught in dust a number of times, but as it clawed closer it became clear to them that this was not another of these, but rolls of dense moisture that soon swept around them.
They kept going as best they were able, with the rutted road just visible between its ditches and the lowest terraces on either side, but found they were riding more and more slowly till they came to a silently agreed halt.
“What now?” said Taru, shivering for the first time since coming down from the north.
“I don’t know,” admitted Rohin; “I’ve not come across weather like this before – not this dense and this far out from the river valleys.”
“You know the land best; I think it’s your call.”
Rohin did not reply immediately, and was hesitant when he did so: “Although this is denser fog than I’ve known, I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue if we’re careful; the road is not badly maintained here and as safe as I know of out of sight of any city walls. We can just go carefully.”
As he finished speaking a vague braying arose above them.
“Very carefully. We don’t often get wild dog packs other than in the heights of the Bhot-Mala.”
They moved forward with care.
But the fog was isolating, lowering a further veil of dislocation between the two companions and, indeed, anything that existed beyond the touch of their hands on their reins and mounts. And Taru soon grew to distrust what his eyes and ears were telling him, though what Rohin experienced was doubtless very different. There were shadows of shapes unfounded, spirits of mists as fashioned globules in the haunts of the droplets. Kabandhir came and Ryth came and Danti and Goddard. Not all light – not all dark. From his past, from dream-lands, or from ancient myths. Out of time, out of place. Distractions. So, concentrate, for there were, he believed, somewhere in the half-dark, ratchets of spirit and flesh, only partly of this world.
There was a face in the stub-land, dry shades hewn of grass set alight with flames of silver and blue, orange and purple tinged; a dry land threatening to burn all that tried to live there. But the flames were no more than further distractions: Taru was sure he knew the nature of the threat and recalled the words the Thunderbird Clan’s shaman had told him, the observances that needed to be followed, quickly and smartly. He hoped it would work this far from Pohjah:
Raven as my solar guide
Come out from where you hide
In the realm just a heartbeat away
Hear my call on this troubled day
Call out the wolves for we’re beset
By a diabolical threat
That’s beyond the reach of our arms
Help to keep us from harm
But the copper-ratchets did not seem overly threatened by the spirit-wolves called by Taru’s incantation, and both the travellers’ horses were becoming panicked. So the ioculer tried another call:
Concentrate: close your early eyes and open and open them again. Project the you that strides boldly against the half-thought-half-sinew hunters and banish them.
Taru leapt down from his horse and strode outwards, seeming to pulsate, even as Rohin called to him in warning, but the sneaking pack had fled before the spirit-wolves and Taru’s questionable valour – as though he repelled them – and the mists went evaporating with them, and the landscape returned to normal.
A raven croaked overhead.
“What the hell was that?” said Rohin. “What just happened?”
“You’d not believe me if I told you.”
And Taru did, though their sights and sounds and experiences indeed seemed to have little in common, other than the braying and sense of apprehension, till Taru had dismounted.
“All right,” said Rohin. “I don’t understand what happened, still, but you’ve scared them away. That’s good enough for me.”
They set off again, trying to make as good a pace as they could. Fortunately they were soon on the long, slow decline towards the Eiso-Ganga River’s valley and the way became as easy as any they had found in all their crossing of Parasalaya. They kept going till it was almost pitch dark and camped where they stopped, hoping to come within Udy-Anam-Puram’s walls before another nightfall, trusting that the copper-ratchets would not come back as Taru had made it clear he was not to be tangled with.
9: Of a Hidden Valley
When he was young Taru used to have recurring dreams of escape. As he passed into adulthood these lessened in intensity and frequency, till the one in Udy-Anam-Puram. This occurred on the third night there and was the most insistent one Taru could recall, perhaps being prompted by his raven guide, returning after a long absence.
There were tales in the land of the five lakes of places where all was peace and immortality, for the chosen few who could make it there; of technically advanced societies who did not destroy in an increasing orgy of devouring more and more; or of a society without any hierarchy and not susceptible to superstition – yet not, somehow, bland. With many suggestions as to their hidden locations. Almost all of them affected him deeply, awakening something further within the ioculer, and started a series of dreams that developed and gained substance as he grew, before tailing off again.
Sometimes these dreams advanced a retreat to a valley; sometimes to an island far out to sea, with no other shores visible; and sometimes to a glade in an immense forest.
The one in Udy-Anam-Puram was about a haven in the mountains.
It seemed more concrete then usually. More complex. He could see the island in the lake at the centre of the valley, the old woods, and a towering peak on each flank. He could see towns and roads, a fort near the force and a shadow in the north.
And there in Udy-Anam-Puram he sifted through his jumbled and crusty dreams and memories till he remembered a tale his father had told him when he was small.
It was only a vague story – even more so than that of the Tale of Michael the Messenger that his mother used to explain why she had called him ‘Michael’ – being little more than a variation on the theme of somewhere hidden away from the fuss and turmoil of the wider world. But it started a process of refining down where such a valley could be – if indeed it existed, though somehow he felt that dream in Udy-Anam-Puram was somehow prescient – for it told of a valley behind the heights in the hub of mountains to the north-east of the land of the five lakes, towards the Great Sea. And it was of course that area from which his father had come.
So, to seek for the valley he would need to travel eastwards from Parasalaya and then up past Aldridge at the extreme end of the land of the five lakes to see what he could find in the hub of mountains there. Decided.
The final help came from Gava – Rohin’s father – who remembered, just before Taru left, a conversation he had had with an old hedonist who yapped endlessly about his many wanderings. Gava had recalled he had mentioned the deserts and wondered if he knew about the lands to the north.
And he did: he had been there. His mind was wandering now even more than his legs used to, but Gava managed to glean some useful information: There, beyond the land of the five lakes there are the heights that are called the Enchanted Mountains; and in the valley of the River Liza and about there are a plethora of stories of a secluded valley in the mountains, precise ones. Seek there. Seek for a steep valley, with fir-clad sides, with a stream flowing down from the misty heights. And then he had added: Ask for the Batch Stream.
10: Of the Call of the Raven
From Parasalaya in the south Taru headed north, then along the Great Divide, before crossing to the lands about the River Liza. And all along the way he was sure he was on the right track, for he could see his solar-inspired guide – often enough at least. Not always when he was riding, or was conscious; frequently he only showed himself when Taru was asleep. But that was fine; after all he had first shown himself to the ioculer when he was in a dream- trance. Not so very different from being asleep really.
The raven had come to herald his departure from Parasalaya and his separating from Rohin – they had agreed to meet up again, of course, at the Place of Seventh Learning after Rohin had gone to find the land of his mother’s kin further west and Taru had found the hidden valley he now believed in. This was a renowned centre of knowledge and teaching, its name known throughout the eastlands, including on Thursey – and Taru considered the isle of his birth to be more remote from information and civilisation than even far Pohjah. Yet as he travelled east and then north, guided always by his solar raven, he passed into even more back-of-beyond places than Thursey.
Although he asked as many people who lived in those lands as he could, no one could give him precise directions to the Batch Stream, though many had heard of it. The general surmise was that it would be one of the many streams that flowed down from the east; perhaps when he got close to it someone would know more. No one did, but eventually he decided to travel up by one of the streams flowing through a fir-clad valley. All because he thought he had seen a large raven perched on various rocks near where the stream joined the River Liza, and which then flew off up the valley. And he was sure thereafter he had seen it a couple of times more, reaffirming he was on the right track.
But now the weather had closed in and he felt miserable, even questioning why he was enduring all this in search of a valley that probably did not exist, while ever before him previously on that journey the imaginings of what the secret valley would deliver to stem his unsettling rootlessness had held him on his course.
Yet he was not alone, Uffatun and the raven were still with him, and that surely counted for something.
11: Of Alentir and the Passage into Orestol
That night he dreamt of a water goddess in her chariot; that he stood gazing into a mountain stream, at the flickering, untrue reflections in the stream. The moon was rising above the evergreens on the steep slopes around, while his horse grazed a few paces away. Taru lifted his head as a sea-horse-drawn chariot descended towards him, driven by a tall, strong featured nereid, clothed in flowing and barely concealing silvery-blue. His eyes widened, more in wonder than comprehension.
As the chariot touched the surface of the water, the nereid turned her gaze towards him. She did not speak, but stepped forward onto the water, and Taru noticed that between her breasts shone a sigil, reflecting silver in the moonlight. Rousing himself from his stupefaction, he groped forward, in fear and want, his hands grasping for the sigil. There was no resistance, though his fingertips blurred briefly in a visual pins-and-needles reaction, and there was a memory of a moment of shiver, before he held the sigil in his hand.
He focused all his attention on it, descending into moments that only referenced themselves, crusted and empty, till he woke, bewildered and yawning, with not the merest hint of a clue as to where he was.
What had happened was closed to him, but there was clearly a gap of unnumbered days during which he had left behind his horse and all he had previously owned – including his precious cithern – and climbed into the hub of mountains. (Uffatun very soon followed him however and passed through the mountains with more ease than her master.)
He was hungry, thirsty and disorientated. Looking around helped little as all he could see was mist and stoney ground, but he could hear a spring nearby. He moved towards it, and was in the process of kneeling to drink when he was startled alert by a shout from the mists. There followed after it a slight figure, who ran towards him, yelling at him repeatedly to Stop!
“It’s good I caught you in time,” the stranger said, “because you mustn’t drink from any springs or pools you find in these mountains. All will poison you, send you delirious. Here, I’ve plenty, share mine.”
After Taru had drunk deeply, with the stranger urging him to consume as much as he wanted as he had more than enough; the ioculer stuttered his thanks and gave him his name – it seemed polite. Yet, in his confusion, Taru at first gave his name as Michael Raven, though he had rejected the first and dropped the second.
“And I’m Alentir. I’ve not yet met anyone in these mountains.”
“Really,” said Taru, looking around at the bleak vagueness and diffused light.
“It may be good to have some company for a bit.”
“I am … ummm … rather lost. And have mislaid my pack.”
“You can share my provisions, and I know my way through here very well. I can guide you.”
The food was nothing special, but Taru was used to traveller’s rations, and was, besides, ravenous. He thanked Alentir a number of times, till he noticed his rescuer’s repeated It’s all right getting terser. So he asked: “Where exactly are you heading?”
“It is a difficult way to find,” Alentir explained, “but I’ve passed this way many times before and won’t go astray now. It’s only a few days at most, and at the end of the passage there’s the hidden valley of Orestol; a good place to spend time in, away from the scurrying of the world without. Peace and quiet in plenty, and not too many people.”
At this Taru’s spirits rose, for he jumped to the conclusion that this valley must be the valley he sought.
When they were nourished and rested they set off again, but it was not long before they became separated, with Taru lagging behind on routes that seemed more like those he had experienced in his vision-quest in Pohjah than those in the corporeal world, with sights and sounds
swirling and stabbing – cascades threatening to smother him by the deliberate release of jumbling water – a passage through flames into a haunted forest – hunting ratchets – hunting just for him – searching him out – who knew he was so important?
– and his dark avatar, rising red-purple through the glitter of droplets – raising her finger and pointing it at him accusingly – holding him responsible for all the death and sorrow that had occurred in the recent upheavals in the land of the five lakes – after all, he had simply fled
– panicking he ran across a furrowed field and up a steep hillside – towards the diffused flames on its summit – yet there he found no fire – just a cairn of curiously shaped stones: no mortar – he started to climb it – braying was close behind – in the mists he was certain he could see prowling shapes and slavering maws – higher he scrambled up the build of rocks – snapping jaws followed him – a raven croaked overhead
– sheets of fire crowded out from the furnace at the heart of the world – billowing up to cover the dark realms far out on the deep plain below the waves – fountaining up to turn white-hot the tubular palace suspended from the underside of the upper world – pouring forth their poison till they had tortured all the world – blocking out the sun and destroying all life except the poisonous growths that glowed in the endlessly-long night – overhead storms raged – only of lightning and ash and sulphurous airs – doing nothing to nourish the insubstantial form of Taru standing bowed above the world – and
through all of which a silver thread wefted its way. Taru believed it came from Alentir, that he had not lied when he said he knew how to pass through the mists – though the way was indeed difficult – and had called to the ioculer with his silver voice, leaving a thread Taru could follow that pierced through all delusions.
He followed this thread, though the sound of it and the shape of its existence came and went, pulsed, teasing and beguiling the ioculer as he struggled on to at last win free of the mists of the Enchanted Mountains and find himself reunited with Alentir on the edge of the hidden valley of Orestol. And none of the creatures he now heard were figments of his imagination.