by Epidiah Ravachol
Thunder rolled in across the featureless horizon. Clouds bruised the western sky and cast long shadows across the flats. They would bring cold wind and rain with them. But among the patches of thin scrub that dotted this almost unbroken land, the air remained still and heavy. Only young, one-armed Meeno moved across the amber landscape.
After a long trek from the south, watching the storm rolling in on his left, he found a massive jut of red rock protruding from the crust at a low angle. It had a low ceiling, but one Meeno could sit or lay beneath. It would be shelter enough from the rain, if not the wind, and it was wide enough to comfortably fit a fire.
Meeno busied himself collecting dry scrub and twigs under his only arm. On that vast plain with little more than the silhouette of that giant rock thrusting from the flat earth to navigate by, distances were deceptive, much like they had been at sea. He ranged further than he expected to gather a usable pile of kindling, and by the time he reached the shelter again, daylight had all but disappeared.
The ground was hard and unreceptive to digging a fire pit, but time had worn chunks of the red rock free. The detritus laid scattered about the rock. Just inside the shelter’s edge, Meeno assembled a circle of largest stones he could carry.
Pinning several twigs across the top of the largest stone with his sandaled foot, Meeno knelt down and — with a knife more accustomed to filleting fish — he shaved a tinder pile onto a slightly smaller stone.
From his knapsack, Meeno pulled a length of twisted horn and a small roll of seal skin tied together with a leather thong. The horn had had been hollowed out and fitted with a piston of hard wood. He removed the piston and unrolled the seal skin to reveal glistening animal fat. Securing the piston between his knees, Meeno pinched a bit of tinder between his thumb and forefinger and dabbed his middle finger in fat. He filled a shallow depression on the tip of the piston with the tinder and greased a ring around it. He fit the horn back on to the very edge of the piston.
With a sure and practiced swiftness, Meeno snatched the horn up and slammed it onto his thigh, driving the piston into it. Placing the horn on the stone next to his tinder pile, Meeno stepped on it and pulled the piston out.
A mote of ember and ash fell from the tip onto the stone.
Cupping his hand around the remaining tinder pile, Meeno nudged it toward the ember and gently blew.
A thin wisp of smoke.
Meeno slowly fed the smallest kindling to the flame and worked the fire off of the stone and into the circle where more kindling awaited it.
He could not sustain the fire for long with the fuel at hand. Meeno planned to build it up fast enough to heat the stones through, so that he might depend upon their warmth later. Behind him, the thunder rumbled through his roof of rock. In sympathy, his stomach growled. He could find no game while he collected the kindling. It would be a hungry and fitful night, but for now he would enjoy the respite of the fire.
The first wanderer came upon him from the east, when the sky behind her was a deep, dark blue and as of yet untouched by clouds. He watched her approach with curiously little alarm. His spear was close at hand, and though he had to crouch to move about underneath the red rock, it made an excellent shield. So he watched as a point on the horizon grew and took form even as the shadows of night robbed that form of its silhouette.
She strolled up to the fire and stooped to greet Meeno with a broad smile. One hand she braced against the rock ceiling, and in her other hand she held out three rabbits by their legs.
“If you would share your fire, I would share my dinner.”
Being born in a port, Meeno had learned many tongues in his 18 years. Hers was familiar but not one he knew well. The words “fire” and “dinner” were unmistakable. As was her smile. Rolling his spear away, he made room for her under the rock by the fire.
She ducked under the shelter, dropped the rabbits onto a fire stop, and winked at Meeno.
“I am Kalin and overjoyed to have found a fellow wanderer in this waste.”
Meeno nodded and watched her closely. She had two swords, one at each hip. The left was sheathed in an old, ornate scabbard of leather and bronze. The other was longer, plain sword of steel that lay naked from her right hip. Neither would be of much avail to her under this close rock, and Meeno kept his knife at hand. He probably had nothing to fear from her, but her travelling leathers bore the scars of battles past and she moved with the primal confidence of a jaguar.
As Meeno sized her up, Kalin sat in the spot Meeno cleared for her, pulled a knife from her boot and began working with the rabbit meat. “I do not suppose you have a name?” she asked without looking up from her task.
Meeno’s attention had already been drawn away. The light of the fire now beat out the last of the twilight. The world that had previously stretched to the horizon now reached only as far onto the plain the firelight could cast itself. Across this border strode another woman. She was older than Kalin, and apparently armed with only her stout walking stick. She carried with her several knapsacks and satchels, but did not seem overburdened with them. Again, Meeno thought he had nothing to fear from her, but to happen upon two travelers in such a lonesome land may not be coincidence.
“Have you room at your fire for one more?” she asked when she was just far enough to be completely visible in the dancing light.
“It is his fire and he does not say much, but the rabbit meat is mine and I share it freely with all who would join us on this night.”
The older woman nodded and approached. Addressing Meeno, she produced a bladder from one of her satchels, “I have wine to share. Not enough to slake all our thirsts, but enough to chase the rabbit down our throats.”
Again, he could not grasp the language, but understood the meaning, and welcomed her with a gesture. “Meeno,” he said, for it was about time introductions were made.
“Meeno, I am Calyre,” she said as she ducked under the rock.
“Kalin,” the younger woman offered with a nod to Meeno and Calyre, each.
Meeno grabbed a rabbit and began skinning it with knife and tooth. It was not a savage act, but one of casual deftness. The two women sat in silence for a moment with open curiosity as they watched their one-armed firemate work.
The third wanderer happened upon them while the meat was roasting and the winds brought the first of the rain. The rock was proving to be poorer shelter than they had hoped. They shifted about to find the driest spots near the fire as rivulets of rain crept across the hard ground.
Twice the lightning revealed the third wanderer in the distance as he ran towards the fire. The first time, it was Kalin’s sharp eyes that spotted him while he was just blotch on the horizon. “We may have to prepare a place for one more guest,” she said to Meeno, who nodded though he could not understand her. She reached behind her and moved Meeno’s spear between her and the fire, so that he could reach. Meeno studied her face for intent. She winked and nodded out towards where she had seen the approaching figure.
Calyre witnessed the exchange. Taking her walking stick in both hands she propped herself up to one knee.
By the second lightning strike, the third wanderer was now discernable. He was a tangle of wet, brightly colored clothing with a long sword strapped to his back. Though he was not yet close enough to make out his face, he clearly saw the three around the fire place their hands upon their weapons, for he threw his own hands up and slowed his gait.
“I seek no trouble! Simply shelter from this storm!” he shouted upon entering the edge of the firelight.
Calyre nodded to Kalin who in turn raised an eyebrow to Meeno. Setting his spear aside, but within reach, Meeno waved the soaked traveler in. And thus Bluetuck — who had no fire, food, or wine of his own to share — was welcome to a portion of theirs.
Squatting by the fire, Bluetuck warmed his hands and dried his beard. “I had already steeled myself for a night of trudging naked before the fury of this storm when I spotted the far-off glow of your fire-lit cavern. And I am ever grateful. I would offer you all the coin I have, but I fear you would not accept it.”
With that, Bluetuck tossed four silver pieces that shined as gold by the light of the flames. Each was the size of a hand and engraved with delicate symbols that were made almost smooth over the centuries. Symbols that even in this worn state hinted that they may have been minted by some cyclopean dynasty now long forgotten.
They radiated inexplicable revulsion, causing Meeno and Kalin to curl their noses to them. Calyre yanked a length of cloth from one of her satchels and swiftly gathered the abhorrent coins in it, careful not to touch them. She sealed them in with an intricate knot that she muttered an incantation over before offering the bundle back to Bluetuck.
“Such is their welcome everywhere.” He accepted the bundle with a heavy sigh. “I am unable to be rid of these coins and, it would seem, as long as I have them, I have been unable to earn coin of any other denomination.”
“Where did you find them?” Calyre asked, peering at him with suspicion.
“I stole them, of course. You do not earn such an evil wage through honest work. At least, the first of them I stole. From a tomb high upon a craggy mountain. I was climbing the mountain in retreat from a hetman whose disfavor I had well and truly earned.”
“There must have been easier escape routes than to climb a mountain. Why there?” Kalin asked, offering a Bluetuck a piece of meat freshly torn from the spit.
“They were horse-folk, capable of riding me down on level land, and they treated the mountain with some suspicion. Even refusing to camp in its shadow.” Bluetuck explained as he devoured the morsel. “I did not intend to climb all the way to the summit. Just into a pass that I knew led to a valley beyond. But a storm such as this one raged on the valley side, forcing me to seek refuge. Day followed night followed day. My flesh, cold. My gut, ravenous. My fingers, raw. My arms, my back, my legs, all ready to betray me, ready to surrender to the sweet lure of gravity and fling myself into the howling oblivion below.
“In the dark of the following night, against the protestations of my every sinew, I pulled myself onto a blind ledge, a smooth stone floor carved into the side of the mountain. There, in the dark, with no fire such as this to warm me, and no meat such as this to sate me, I crept into a corner and succumbed to sleep.
“There I should have died and froze to the stone floor—and fresh ornament for some hoary sky tomb. But as the sun pricked my flesh with a false promise of hope, I did wake and found that I curled up beside a massive sarcophagus, easily thrice as long as any needed for a normal corpse. I did not see the face of it, as it towered above me and I had no heart left in me to climb and see. Even in the welcomed light of the sun, the place disturbed me.
“I had resolved to climb down immediately. Every muscle and thew of me found renewed vigor in light of the discovery. And it was as I slipped myself over the side that I saw two of those coins at the base of the sarcophagus, gleaming in the dawn. Reward for all the trouble I had been through.”
“This is no reward,” Calyre said, nudging the bundle of silver by Bluetuck’s side with her walking stick.
“This I learned soon enough.” Bluetuck collected the bundle, and stuffed the lot in a pouch hanging from his waist, to everyone’s visible relief. “Once off that mountain, I found no merchant, no tradesman, no freeman, noble, or serf willing to trade me so much as a bowl of chaff for either of the coins. All that gazed upon their slick façade recoiled just as you did. I found that I could not be rid of them by any conventional means. I cannot bring myself to leave them behind or toss them into the sea. I have tried. Nor could I earn any other coin or goods in trade for,” he reached over his shoulder and lightly touched the hilt of his sword, “my services.”
Meeno, who had been resting against the low ceiling, leaned forward and gripped his spear. Touching his spear-arm, Kalin gave Meeno a small grin and felt his muscles relax.
“I had to depend on charity, voluntary and otherwise, until my path crossed that of a sorceress who did not recoil at the sight of the coins. Contrary to my experiences, she was drawn to them and deeply interested in their origin. I was invited into her seclusium, where I was fed, bathed, and clothed. I fatted there for weeks. By daylight, my hostess kept to herself, leaving me with her parchment, ink, and scribes. I was to draw all I could remember of the sarcophagus, make maps to the tomb and of all my travel since, and chronicle the minutest details I could recall. By night my hostess would avail herself to me and we would find other ways to occupy the hours.
“It was as exhausting as the climb to the tomb itself, but she promised to double my fortune, so I continued on.”
“Ah, but you have suffered so,” Kalin said with laughter that Meeno quickly joined despite his lack of context.
“But I have!” Bluetuck mocked injury. “When she had all that she sought, I was sent on my way with naught but two more of these cursed coins for my troubles.”
Calyre chuckled. Such was the warmth and closeness of the fire that Bluetuck, too, laughed at his own predicament with these stormbound strangers.
Calyre Kinfinder’s Quest
The laughter faded into thunder, and the party fell into silent contemplation of the fire. Calyre shifted to avoid newly formed rivulets, and passed the wine to Bluetuck. “To the west of here lies the crossroads of Lep. There all is traded. You may not receive a fair price, but you could be rid of your grave goods.”
Bluetuck drank deep and passed the wine back. “I was traveling south in the hopes of finding an interested collector within the City of Fire and Coin.”
Calyre shook her head. “I would not travel directly south. There is only sorrow to be found between here and the City of Fire and Coin.”
“Tonu lies between here and the City of Fire and Coin” Kalin said, stoking the fire, “That is a somber place, but not particularly sorrowful. And worth seeing for the familial monuments. It is said that Tonu is where the wealthy make gods of themselves.”
“Tonu has changed in recent months,” Calyre said, her voice growing quiet enough to be lost in the storm. “It is from Tonu I travel and I do not relish when I must return.”
“I know little of Tonu or its troubles, but I have had enough of my own. I will seek Lep instead.” Bluetuck said to Calyre and then turned to Kalin and asked, “However, my curiosity is piqued. How do the wealthy make themselves into gods?”
Kalin spoke, “Tonu is a city of professional worshippers. They have little to offer in the way of goods or trade, but long ago they saw value in their devotion. By offering conquerors and those with coin enough a plot along the Avenue of the Divine, they were able to protect themselves and thrive. For a price, you can have a temple or monolith erected in your honor, or to honor a prominent ancestor. You can even pay worshippers to abide by the tenets and dictates you feel will elevate yourself to godhood.”
Bluetuck’s widened and he turned to the fire, dreaming. Rapping her walking stick on a fire stone to get his attention, Calyre spoke up, “Such was the case until last winter. But no longer.
“I was in Tonu then, tending to a small altar constructed a generation ago for my great aunt. None of her children or children’s children could afford the piety fees and it had gone fallow. She was, however, important to me in my youth. So I made my pilgrimage.
“I found the monuments deserted. Not just the lesser ones. The great cathedrals of the conquerors, which normally bustled with the pious throughout the day and night, were under-worshipped. Of the few that remained, most were too old or infirmed to properly care for the giant halls. It was an inglorious sight, overrun by vermin.
“Only the altar of my great aunt showed signs of worship. Wreaths of flowers and bowls of sacrificial entrails covered it, and sweet incense still burned. And as I approached it, an old man draped in soiled rags hobbled down the avenue, calling to me by the name I share with my great aunt.
“In his own youth this old man knew my great aunt and now mistook me for her. They had been praying for her return, and he thought I was a living miracle once again walking the streets of Tonu.”
Leaning heavily on her stick, Calyre moved again to avoid more water. Meeno–who could only read the somber tone of her tale and none of its content–shifted closer to Kalin and offered Calyre a drier spot by his armless side.
“You are a caring and attentive host,” Kalin said, flashing Meeno a bemused grin. Meeno winked back, causing Kalin to laugh, “I am beginning to wonder just how much of our conversation you understand.”
Calyre settled in beside Meeno and thanked him. Bluetuck also shifted, turning to warm his back by the fire. “Were you the miracle they prayed for?” he asked over his shoulder.
“I am not my great aunt, but we do share a vocation as well as a name. It was she who taught me the art of kinfinding. This was the miracle they had sought. So, in a way, yes, I was. But it is not always a blessing to have one’s prayers answered.
“A reincarnation cult had swept through Tonu–a shepherd promising his sheep that if they just lay down for him, they would be reborn as wolves.”
With his back still to the fire, Bluetuck grinned sardonically, “And to the sheep, the wolf’s life looks ideal.”
“Oh, the hunger of that many wolves with no more sheep around,” Kalin added with her own ironic smile. Meeno read only mirth in his companions’ manner and chuckled, drawing honest laughter from both Kalin and Bluetuck.
Calyre continued, “They were worshippers by profession. This cultivated a cynicism within their hearts that the cult-father preyed on. He promised that all their devotion would be paid back to them eightfold if they would just channel it through him to the pantheon that he alone could speak to.
“Thus they were seduced and led from Tonu, seeking a devotion to end all devotion. And in their wake they left those too infirmed to travel and a thousand broken promises to the families powerful or wealthy enough to afford monuments along the Avenue of the Divine.
“So those left behind prayed for a kinfinder, for a way to track their negligent families down and remind them of their responsibilities. The old man tasked me with finding his two sons, his daughter, and his grandchildren.
“A fatted cow was brought to me and I bathed the old man in her blood. I watched over him as the fevers took hold and forced his tongue to describe where his children had gone. Then he was cleansed of the blood, which I stored in three jars before taking the road north, one for each issue I sought.
“It was not so difficult at first. There was no need to rely on my arts to follow a camp of hundreds. But the trail became muddled. Hundreds of tracks seemed like thousands. They were joined by horses and carts. The refuse I found was not that of a pious herd wandering astray. It was that of an army hunting their way through the hills.
“A cold well of fear opened within me when I thought of all those empty conqueror temples and the demigod generals whose worshippers had been stolen.
“I am old, it is true, but I am an experienced traveler. I stopped only to sleep a few hours when it became too dark to see my way and once to refresh myself in a spring.
“I never caught the army. They must have surprised the cult in the first blue light of dawn, for the sun had barely risen when I came upon them and steam yet rose from fresh wounds. Every one of them split and strewn upon a gray and crimson field. Two trees stood amidst the carnage. A body was stretched between them like a spider web. Such was the fate of the cult-father.”
Calyre stared into the fire and all were silent while she finished off the wine.
“I picked my way through the crow-feast, kin-seeking. So savage was the slaughter that I could not identify a soul by sight. But I know the tongue in which one can whisper to blood, to coax like into seeking like. It took a day and a night, but I had accounted for the old man’s children and his children’s children.”
With weathered hands, Calyre pulled a misshapen satchel off of her back and dropped it before the fire. It fell with a wet weight. Even Meeno–who understood the tone of her tale, if not the words themselves–recoiled.
“I had collected all I could and fled south. My intent was to return to Tonu with the remains and ill tidings.”
“How is it then that we should meet north of Tonu, these grim trophies still in your care?” asked Bluetuck, who once again turned towards the fire, no longer comfortable with his back to Calyre.
Leaning back against the rock ceiling, Calyre explained, “Odd omens plagued my journey back and invaded my restless dreams when I had chance to sleep, which was not often enough. I witnessed a magpie forego the egg and give live birth to her clutch. An errant star that had disappeared from the sky the night before I came upon the cult of corpses had returned but a few days later. And I dreamt of six children born to five families–two in the north and three to the west.
“I have lived enough to know the gods do not keep all their promises, but you can trust them to keep their cruelest ones. The cult-father was no liar. His followers have found the rebirth they sought. And now my oath as a kinfinder shall make a baby-thief of me.”
The four fell to quietly listened to the rhythm of the rain and the crackle of the fire, counting the distance between lightning and thunder.
“This is why I never cared for oaths,” Bluetuck offered after a while, “In the morning, if all this has cleared, I will take your advice and turn toward Lep.”
“I may join you,” Kalin said. She stood to stretch her legs, though she still had to bend over to avoid the rock ceiling, which caused the tip of her longer sword that hung at her right hip to drag in the hard dirt. “As fate would have it, I was making my way south to Tonu; but now I am not so keen to compound their misery with my company.”
“You seem fine enough company to me,” said Bluetuck before nodding to Meeno and adding, “and perhaps even finer company to our quiet, one-armed companion.”
Meeno nodded back to Bluetuck so sagely that Kalin laughed and broke the somber mood that was clinging to the firemates.
Pointing to the elaborate bronze and leather scabbard on Kalin’s left, Calyre said, “I know that sword. It is the Voice of Telhil, one of the four swords of the Elmaian Kings and the Slayer of Sallow Host.”
“It is,” Kalin said, drawing the sword. The firelight danced across its leaf-shaped blade, giving life to the runes inscribed there. “It was my father’s sword and the sword of his father before him and his father before him. It is said to have had a long, undocumented history even before my great grandfather and his brothers unearthed it and its three siblings.
“In my great grandfather’s hands it was present at the Battle of Telhil, where it earned its name by singing out when it clashed against shield or mail. It decorated the walls of the Andorti Palace with the blood of three would-be assassins before cleaving the usurper’s crown itself.
“In my grandfather’s hands it travelled the breadth of the world during the Questing Years and quenched itself in the hearts of all manner of sorcerous beasts. It severed the Lovers of Cinine and is the reason why those constellations are never seen in the same sky.
“In my father’s hands it vanquished the Sallow Host, littering the Coast of Tesslone with their diseased corpses. It helped to quell both great uprisings, crafting countless peasant widows and bastards upon those battlefields. And it was used to execute 131 priests and martyrs who displeased the Shining Lord.
“In my hands, I was to bring it to Tonu upon my father’s death and place it in the grip of a statue of himself that he had commissioned there, so that the pious could look upon it with awe and that he may take its likeness with him as he ascended into godhood.”
Bluetuck whistled. “With such a storied sword at hand, what use is the other?”
Kalin sheathed the Voice of Telhil and the pulled the steel sword from the ring that held it at her right hip. It was longer then the Voice of Telhil by a hand, but altogether less impressive. The firelight shone on its plain blade, but it did not delight in it. Kalin turned the sword over in her hand, feeling its weight. Seeing her interest in the sword, Meeno leaned forward in curiosity.
“This is the sword my mother opened my father with,” she said, winking at him.
He gave her a toothy grin and the two fell to laughter as if they alone shared a joke.
As the storm progressed, the four firemates would continue to laugh and huddle closer together. They would eventually be joined by three more, the last of which would bend each of them from their course toward an ill vengeance.