Chapter Three: On the Path

The grasses there are tinged a ruddy hue, so that the fields swaying before me sparkled with flecks of crimson and scarlet as I trekked down the coast of An Khóuno Ámgho Én—what I might translate as the Bay of Harvest. One man I met with on the trail called it the Gulf of Good Favor, though that seems too long a name, and yet another—a pilgrim heading north towards Keirigan on the Verdant Path—named it the Gulf Where the Grain Grows Tall. I would say he was picking from a bag of those words he knew of the southron tongue in which we spoke, but then he went and recounted a poem for me in perfect Valkon as we sat around a fire with two other pilgrims, just as the sun flickered and fell over the distant hills.

I told them I had just come down from Mávben, and they asked after Keirigan. Truth be told, I hadn’t decided to stop by the Floral City on my path, though seeing the glow in their eyes I knew I didn’t have it in me to disappoint. Tugging my pack into my lap, I leafed through the papers and tomes to find the old sketchbook I kept nestled down there somewhere. Past mechanical spyglasses from the old sultanate; past druidic charms and rings from Féavoll, to the south; past a hunk of bone carved into manifold pipes, much like a pan flute, which moaned and growled when held to the wind—down, I felt my fingers grace the rough parchment of the sketchbook and withdrew it past all the trinkets and goods I’d collected throughout my journeys. I lay it on the trampled leaves and grass between us and flipped through the old charcoal sketches of Keirigan I had made when last I visited its ancient and hallowed streets.

The three pilgrims hunkered close to catch a glimpse of the flowers cast in shades of grey and the towers whose burgeoning vines and leaves I could only begin to catch with my crude artistry. Too close, they came, I’ll admit. They do not share the southerners’ sense of personal space, and it has always taken me some time to reacquaint myself with how quick the children are to tug at your dress or wrap themselves about your arms, and the adults share something of their youth’s unabashed curiosity. By the time we’d reached the end, I’d a woman pressed against my left and a man to my right, while yet another leaned over the others to study the pages. They crept back over to their spots around the fire, a hollowness to their eyes that made my chest ache. I knew that look as one I had once worn.

What is it? I asked. They are a little old, yes, but Keirigan is a timeless beauty.

It is not that, not at all, the one opposite me said. His hair glimmered the same hue as the flames, and he plucked up a handkerchief to wipe at a nose that bent as if broken three too many times. He had told me his name was Kóuno, though I’d glimpsed as we walked, him reading and rereading a letter addressed to a man named Bén. As a chronicler, it is not my place to cast doubt upon what I am told, only to record, and so I did as he finished mopping up his lip with his handkerchief and jimmied it back into his pocket.

I will say, at least for myself, he continued, I am only disappointed at how few of our people make the journey up the Verdant Path these days. Once, every Rivener worth their name would have taken An Mánvum nGáll at least once in their life, but now—well, now we’re too caught up sending our youth to die in the southerners’ war.

It’s been twenty one years, the woman to my left said, whose name I now faintly recall being Héna. A whole generation gone. What do you think of this, chronicler? You have no part in this war, no?

Where I come from, I said, we have had war longer than living memory, but so brief a war as yours is still too great of one. I cannot say whether I support the caliphate or the republic. My creed keeps me from meddling too much in the affairs of your peoples. But I remember a time when no one took the Verdant Path up to Keirigan, not too long ago, so I must say there has been progress, however slight.

Aye, I remember that, Héna said, before the Grey Hunter marched up the coast.

Yes, that is the time. I flipped through my sketchbook until I came upon a rather old portrait of the huntsman—who would have, to these people, been little more than a myth—and showed it around. I met him before the war in Metir Keviv. Before I’d heard any word of Khal Mhuchelván.

That is who you are after then, the red-haired fellow, Kóuno, said. We were trying to piece it together, truth be told, but you keep your cards close. Too close, among friends.

It is a matter of habit. I lifted my hands in mock surrender. You wouldn’t be able to tell me anything of his travels, would you? Or a scrap of his story passed down to you?

Kóuno and Héna studied the flames a moment, but the third pilgrim, seated to my right, spoke up with a growl. He passed through the Gulf Where the Grain Grows Tall, not thirty five years ago, along with two old men garbed in blue robes. I’m sure you’ll get more out of him, when you find him, but I recall an old tale my mother brought up from the Valkon lands. It is in their tongue, and I do not know enough to translate it well.

I can translate it myself, I said. It is better to hear it in its first tongue.

Well, he said, then let me find it for you. This old head has too many stories in it. I’ll begin once I’ve got it set.

We watched a moment as he ran gnarled fingers through his beard, eyes prowling the ashes and embers churning at the heart of our campfire, until at last a spark caught in his gaze and he glanced back up to me and began.