HALDAN RETURNED TO Torence six weeks late. The night was cloudless and cool, and a third quarter moon cast an eerie glow off the deserted cobblestones and empty stalls lining the market row. He made his way through the twisting streets toward the keep, and as he left the narrow confines of the lower city, the large black bricks of the inner wall rose up, glistening in the moonlight. The wall ringed the citadel that sat on a hill, and the twin towers of the castle loomed high overhead, piercing the sky like two ominous shadows.
Two guards at the postern gate recognized him, and the wooden doors of the main gate swung open as he led his tired horse into the short tunnel without breaking stride. The inner portcullis was raised, and the chains banging off the iron made a racket that likely woke half the city. The booming echo of the gate closing behind him told him he was home at last, and he climbed a short hill to the right and angled down a narrow street to the stables where a stable hand was already waiting for him.
“Will you need him tomorrow, My Lord?” the young man asked, grabbing the reins and steadying the horse as Haldan dismounted.
“No, lad, I hope not. He needs as much rest as I do,” Haldan said, giving his tired horse an affectionate pat before pulling off his saddlebags and slinging them over his shoulder.
He walked the short distance from the stables, crossing the small courtyard surrounding the right tower before he entered the large rotunda. A few lanterns had been kept burning by the night watch, but the large fire that usually burned at the opposite side of the room had gone out, and he almost imagined that he could feel a cold breeze blowing through the empty cavernous room. He shivered involuntarily as he made his way to the open staircase, and he started the short climb to Ashaer’s quarters that were just high enough up the tower to clear the inner wall of the keep and provide a view of the southern seas.
He knocked and entered without waiting for an answer. Ashaer was standing next to the fire with his back to the door, his arms folded behind him. His long black hair hanging just above his clasped hands was braided, and the red and gold cords of Fayersae that were still wrapped into the braid meant that the Council had met late into the night.
“Where have you been for the last six weeks?” Ashaer asked in a strong voice tinted with the accent of a native.
He turned around and folded his arms across his chest.
“It’s good to see you again,” Haldan said, dropping his saddlebags at the door.
Ashaer nodded his head in a silent apology and unfolded his arms. He began to pace the small area between the fireplace and the door.
“What took you so long?” he asked, and the voice he reserved for the Council Chiefs was gone.
“The shadows have grown deep around the marsh,” Haldan said, taking a small chair opposite the fire.
“Your sight is keen,” Ashaer said. “You’ve walked the Weltwood freely for many years, and I’ve never known you to lose your way before.”
Having just been to the edge of the marsh, Haldan knew better than to compare the shadows there to those of the Weltwood.
“I’m back, and for now, that’s all that matters,” he said.
“Did you discover anything that would explain why all the Onayotek villages south of the marsh have been deserted?” Ashaer asked, finally getting to the point.
“Unless you count the fear that is in the air, I found nothing,” Haldan said. “I met no one and saw no one; the whispers are still the same, however.”
He didn’t expect this answer to satisfy him, but Ashaer just nodded as if expecting this assessment, which Haldan found surprising since Ashaer had insisted that the reason for the deserted villages be discovered when he’d asked him to explore the area around the marsh.
Ashaer stopped pacing and turned to face the fire again. After a few minutes he turned around.
“The fear is real,” he said, clasping his hands behind his back again. “The deepening shadow is real,” he added before becoming silent again.
Haldan waited for him to explain as Ashaer stood stiffly in front of the fire. Clearly, Haldan thought, Ashaer wasn’t able to relax while still dressed for the Council Chiefs.
His black jacket and pants were tight fitting, and his tall lean body seemed to struggle inside the hard rigid leather. Three braided cords, like the ones in his hair, hung at his right shoulder, signifying his rank as Minister of War. His uniform was trimmed in dark red, and the double dragonhead prow of a longship embroidered across his breast indicated that he belonged to the House of Fayersae and not to the Ganien Nation; however, with his dark skin and jet-black hair, nobody would ever mistake him for a Fayersae by blood.
He was tall, like most warriors of his tribe, and his beak-like nose jutted outward, splitting his narrow face. His eyes were two black dots, and they stared unblinkingly, missing nothing. Thin lips and a pointed chin completed the sharp countenance. It was an intense face, a determined face, a face that fastened upon you and made you a friend or an enemy at once, but it was not a handsome face. Still, it was a face that few ever forgot once they saw it.
“I have remembered an old story my Clan Mothers once told around the sacred fire,” Ashaer began at last. “Tradition would normally prevent me from relating it to a pale skin, but since you walk our forest with open eyes and are therefore a brother, I will tell you their tale. This is the story, in part, of Oseronni Ni Kahyonda, or in the common tongue, the White Lady between the Rivers. Forgive my awkward use of the white man’s tongue, but I’m translating as I remember the details.”
He momentarily bowed his head to collect his thoughts and then raising it, he began the narration.
“Each year as the days grow longer following the May Day, our seven Brothers will start to warm the air, and when the warm winds have returned to the land, the forbearance of men turns prideful. When warriors become animals, forgetting duty, and the women all speak at once from the same fire, the land will fill with yearning, lust, and all things that dishonor men. If the Clans then become consumed with appetite, letting the warmth of our Brothers cloud their reason, all will feel the weight of hubris and a life without purpose, and they will become ashamed; however, if a few are strong and have remembered temperance, they will slowly turn away from our Brothers and beg our Sisters to free them from their overindulgence.
“Now our Grandmother, the moon, who guards the door between the worlds, will always fight the pride that grows in the hearts of men as the air warms, and she fights the lust that turns warriors into animals, and she fights the confusion that turn women from their understanding of truth; however, if many men care only for their weapons and many women sit at the same fire, our grandmother will grow tired and our Brothers will let loose a Bat to chase and to envelop her in its leathery wings. From this annual affliction our grandmother must flee and our Brother’s heat will eventually consume all the land; for if the Clans are disunited and have become prideful and arrogant, and our grandmother has had no help tempering lust and ignorance, she will be too weary to escape, and the Bat will catch her and cover her eyes with its brown wings.
“But upon seeing our Grandmother’s peril at being so consumed, our Sisters will rise up and cast a great waking spell upon Oseronni who sleeps in the land between the rivers. So great will be the power of their call to wake Oseronni, that our Brothers will be diminished and Kahonsti will once again sleep for a time. From that point on, the valiant warriors who can walk alive between the rivers will be given strength to temper the passions our Brothers bring, and our seven Sisters will give wise council to the women who still keep the sacred fires so that they may speak with one voice.”
Ashaer paused for a moment, letting his words summon a distant memory of a much older story.
“There is another half to the tale,” he said. “It is older, and I have only heard it whispered a few times in the old tongue.”
He was silent for a few minutes before he continued the narration.
“Each year, as the days grow shorter following the Festival of the Three Clans, our seven Sisters will start to chill the air with their cold breath, and when the warm winds have been banished to the edge of the world, beasts and monsters will awaken. When warriors become women, forgetting courage, and women become silent, letting the sacred fire dim, the land will fill with cowardice, fear, and all things that terrify men. If the Clans then become consumed with despair, letting the chill of the Sisters touch their hearts, all will feel the burden of decay and death, and they will become afraid; however, if a few are strong and their fires have not died, they will slowly turn away from our Sisters and beg our seven Brothers to free them from this malady.
“Now our Grandfather, the sun, who fills the land with eternal fire, will always fight the doubt that grows in the breasts of men as the air chills, and he fights the beasts that try to turn warriors into women, and he fights the monsters that turn women from their duty to the sacred fires; however, if many men have laid down their weapons, and many women have put out their fires, our Grandfather will grow tired and our sisters will let loose a Vulture to chase and to consume him in its vast wings. From this annual affliction our Grandfather must flee and our Sister’s breath will eventually stop the water and the rain, and the land will turn from green to brown to white; for if the Clans are disunited and have become craven and weak, and our Grandfather has had no help driving the beasts and monsters back into the dark places, he will be too weary to escape, and the Vulture will catch him and cover his eyes with its black wings.
“But upon seeing our Grandfather’s peril at being so consumed, our Brothers will rise up and cast a great waking spell upon Kahonsti who sleeps in the forever-green land. So great will be the power of their call to wake Kahonsti, that our Sisters will be diminished and Oseronni will once again sleep for a time. From that point on, the valiant warriors who can find his hidden sanctuary will be given strength to accept the chill our Sisters bring, and our seven Brothers will give wise council to the women who still keep the sacred fires so that they may comfort and bring peace to those who feel the cold breath coming.”
Haldan said nothing after Ashaer finished the tale of Oseronni and Kahonsti. The man he had come to know over the years was still able to surprise him. For months, Ashaer had been obsessed with the marsh and the disappearance of the Onayotek villagers, and now, after all the prying and inquiries had come up empty, it appeared that a Ganien tale told by the Mothers around the sacred fire had satisfied his thirst for the answers to the mystery.
He wondered if the white men had ever told a story such as this one. If they had, he’d never heard it, and it was not found in any of the books he had ever read. For as long as anyone could remember, the white man had used the hiding of the moon and sun to demarcate the ages, and when a person lived to witness seven cycles of the Darkening, the title of Ealder was bestowed. It was a rare honor, and he had not reached the age of witnessing his first Darkening, and very few Ealders had survived the assault of the Plague Bringers when the Houses had fled Hamlond in the Fayersae longships. The fire had dimmed, and he let Ashaer pace for a few minutes before he broke the spell of the story.
“The foundations for many of the oldest stories often contain literal truths,” he said as Ashaer stopped again in front of the fire. “Uncovering the lessons our ancestors have hidden in myth is never an easy task. We should ask ourselves how this story relates to our time,” he said. “What wisdom can we draw from this tale?”
“I don’t know yet,” Ashaer said, finally unbuttoning the collar of his heavy jacket.
He opened the heavy chain grate to the fireplace and added another log to brighten and re-warm the room. When he had finished, he grabbed the wooden chair from the desk and moved it to the fire, finally allowing himself to sit.
“I don’t know yet,” he repeated. “Oseronni and Kahonsti are ancient names that have passed into the collective mythos of all the tribes; time has caused many of the interpretations to drift apart, however. The Onayotek no longer distinguish between the two, and for them, Oseronni and Kahonsti are one and the same. I believe pieces of the Onayotek stories concerning the land between the rivers have also merged with their destruction mythology.”
“Perhaps explaining the desertion of all the Onayotek villages around the marsh,” Haldan said, now understanding the connection Ashaer had made between the story and the disappearance of the Onayotek.
“Yes,” Ashaer said. “It is more than that, though. As you implied, the literal truths may be more apparent than I’d imagined. Avanian knows more than she willingly reveals, and she often speaks like a Mother. Too often, I fail to find the hidden truths in her words.”
The seriousness of the conversation kept Haldan from smiling at Ashaer’s assessment of Avanian.
“You forget, my native friend, that while Avanian may at times speak like a Mother, she also speaks with the obfuscation of Triumon,” he said. “Never forget who she is. She will never reveal more than she thinks we need to know.”
Haldan paused after his last statement, almost smiling at himself now. Was that manipulation any different than the nuanced words of a Mother?
“Obviously, something’s moving the Onayotek to this odd behavior,” Haldan said. “Whether myths are rising to walk the land, I cannot tell; however, we can’t ignore the fact that all the villages within two days’ ride of the marsh have been abandoned. Are the Onayotek Council Chiefs still silent?”
“They have not responded to any of my inquiries,” Ashaer said. “If they are concerned at all, they hide it well. The trust between them and the Ganien Nation has never been strong, however. Historically, our alliances have been made out of necessity rather than any bond between our peoples. I do not know what they discuss in private, and I doubt they have revealed any of their thoughts to the other members of Council.”
Haldan was quiet a moment before he said, “What we do know is that a deep fear seems to have taken root in the dark soil, and it is growing as the green fields have turned brown. Daily, dissension between the Houses and the Five Nations grows, and the Council Chiefs are laying down their weapons while the drums of war are growing louder from within the Union and from the Shotak in the north.”
Haldan was wise enough to respect the signs, however ominous, pointing to the danger that lurked, even if it could only be imparted via the myths of a strange culture.
“Yes, our warriors have become women,” Ashaer said as he stood and started to pace again. “Once more, the Council refused all pleas to have the Nations prepare for war. The Houses are unified in principle, but with the exception of Bruchmon, they have done nothing to aid Northmon and fortify Ofst. Westermon is silent, Triumon is divided and Fayersae’s numbers are not large enough to matter.”
“And my brother will fortify the Hills of Raumuth, but nothing more,” Haldan said.
“It fulfills the minimum commitment of House Haelanhon,” Ashaer said, folding his arms behind his back again. “Unless the Council Chiefs order the red warriors to sharpen their weapons and string their bows, the white man will fight alone. But the time nears when their voices will go unheard. They are no longer even women, but snakes that crawl in the dust. They will soon be returning to their Clan Mothers to stain their families forever with the cowardice that chokes them.”
“Then Laedian will be forced to call a War Council,” Haldan said, choosing to ignore the issue with the Council Chiefs.
They had wrestled with their growing hostility toward the Houses until there was no point in discussing it any further. Either the Union held or it didn’t. Either way, war was coming, and the short peace seemed certain to end by midsummer, if not sooner.
“Are you riding north?” he asked.
“Yes, I’ll be leaving for the Hills at daybreak,” Ashaer said, stopping to stand at the door.
This was Haldan’s cue to leave, and he stood to retrieve his saddlebags.
“Nothing has really changed,” Ashaer said. “We plan for war despite the Council Chiefs, and wait for the War Council to be called. If the Clan Mothers send their War Chiefs, then the Union holds. If they don’t, then the Houses will fight the enemy in the north without allies.”
“But will we also fight with enemies at our back?” Haldan asked. “And our problem with the marsh hasn’t gone away. We still have no facts, and now we wait for further signs to portend which myths may reveal the truth.”
He picked up his saddlebags and opened the door.
“And you are still the Minister of War for the House of Fayersae, and still, we are not certain who our friends are and when our enemies will strike,” he added before closing it behind him.
He walked the empty corridor and went down the stairs, exiting the tower to finally find food and rest. As he made his way across the deserted garden toward his quarters at the edge of the outer wall facing the sea, he thought it remarkable that in the short time that they had been on Hauden, the Houses now found themselves embroiled in an alliance and pending war that usually took generations to become this entangled. That the Houses were groping their way through this new alliance was without question, yet he somehow drew comfort from the strange natives and their odd ways, natives he now called friend and brother. He felt a kinship with them, and he knew that it was this feeling of kinship that would trump all their petty differences.
Posted in: Heart of HaudenPublished: June 23, 2010