Chapter Five: Along the River Féar

I carried that tale with me, down from the coast of the Bay of Harvest and along the banks of the river, Féar, all the while entertaining the company of the pilgrim, Héna. She’d two children back home in Shésaven, near Féavoll, and had asked whether she couldn’t accompany me back on my way. I will admit, dear reader, that I prefer to travel alone. Alas, the creed forbids scorning company, so as we marched along, I prayed she would have a tale for me to make it worth my while.

Here and there, sparrows picked about in the brush, plucking up seeds and singing occasional songs to the breeze. I puzzled over their dances amongst the twigs as we ambled down the road. These were old roads along the Féar, from a time I could not name; their brickwork, a series of interlacing hues that once might have appeared as an intertwined thread leading down the path but which the years had worn into lengths of discoloration punctuated by shrines that marked forks in the path. Héna hummed an old sea shanty, clicking her heels on the stone. We passed a jay, and at her voice, it swept off its branch and, in a flutter of wings, disappeared amidst the canopy. Leaves rustled and drifted to the dirt.

I chewed my lip. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d like to see the birds.

I’m not sure I… Héna knitted her brow, a moment, then her eyes alit and she let out a laugh. Oh, was I humming? I hardly notice these days. It’s an old one my father taught me. Would you like to hear it?

No, I would not, I thought, but the creed compelled me. Yes, I would.

Héna cleared her throat and began to sing. It wasn’t that she was particularly bad, only that I was particularly bitter—her voice was as near to a nymph’s as I might ever hear, and it carried over the trees, stirring the flocks to flight, sending squirrels scampering through the underbrush. Sometimes I contemplate abandoning the creed altogether, truth be told. It’s not as if my old master will come out with a switch and slap my hands for denying a few peasants the right to ramble about some drab story they concocted about the fire, but for every shanty I am subjected to, I catch the remnants of an ancient epic on the tongues of sailors and merchants or even hermits, and it justifies having heard all the others. So I let Héna belt out her tune a while and admired those hardened critters that sat by the wayside and watched us pass, probably wondering what could inspire such stupidity as humans’.

Héna? I said, much later, once we could see the walls of Shésaven rising over the road. How is it that your family got here?

Well, she said, stroking her chin. That is a good question.

It is fine if you haven’t got an answer.

No, no. She wagged a finger. It isn’t that I’m stumped. There’re a few tellings of it, and I never did hear which one was the truth. My grandfather was a fellow named Mágyelen, though he was a tight-lipped man. He told me he had come from the west and nothing more.

Mágyelen, I said. That’s a Shekhlán name.

Aye. She shrugged. But don’t hold it against him.

Certainly not, I’m looking for another Traveler, matter of fact.

The Traveler, as I hear it. Héna kneaded her brow. You know, there’s a wayshrine just outside of town. Perhaps I can show it to you. Tell you something about it.

I would appreciate that very much.

And now it seemed that listening to that shanty had paid off.

Héna took up my hand—and gripped, for all that I initially squirmed—dragging me along the road, off to the right around the town’s walls. Hints of a trail had been devoured by the forest, leaving only patches of bare dirt and a few planks from lost signs, thick with the earthy stench of rot, to show that there had ever been one. Héna clambered over fallen trunks, helping me up after her, and told me of a dozen little landmarks along the way, until at last we came into a clearing where the trees gave way to grass. At the center of this meadow, there loomed a hunk of stone, chiseled into a slab whose southern face wore a thousand etchings. From afar, they appeared as a tangle of cracks in the granite, but picking our way through the grasses, it became clear that they were runic in nature. As we reached the base of the slab, I pressed my hand to the stone. Dead cold. I don’t imagine they know what they’ve built their homes next to, I thought, glancing back to Héna.

What does it do?

Héna bit back a laugh. What does it do? It doesn’t do anything, really. But it’s been here longer than the town itself, that much I know.

I traced the runes, feeling rough granite against my fingers. These marks…

Aren’t they Venerene? Héna asked. I thought maybe you would know.

Yes, they are, I said, but the stone is not.

Have you ever met a Venerene? What do they look like? Héna knelt down to pluck flowers from amongst the grasses. There were an assortment of hues here, painting the meadow with pastel beauty. You’ve travelled plenty far, right?

I have not. I ran my hand along the stone, walking around its circumference with measured steps. Fifty paces around, I muttered to myself, tugging my journal out of my pack to record the measurements. After I had finished, I looked back over to Héna. What do the Venerene look like? Well, they’re no different than you. Came over from the old world several thousands of years before your kin, but still came from the same place. Still human.

Héna buried her hands in the folds of her dress. I’d heard they’ve got crows’ beaks and wolfs’ snouts and all that.

Perhaps once the stories have made it all this way, that’s what they look like. I strolled back over to Héna and propped my hands on my hips, looking up at the crest of the wayshrine. They wear masks much of the time. They didn’t used to, but it’s how they remember their fallen. And they have many fallen, these days. Héna?

Yes? she said, letting petals cascade from her palm into the grasses.

You wouldn’t happen to have another story like the one your companion told, would you? I leafed through my journal and found the page where I’d finished translating that fellow’s tale. It would prove quite useful for me.

Well, none as good as his, she said, but I can try my best.

Héna beckoned to the base of the wayshrine, and we took up a seat together.

She coiled the stalks of flowers about her fingers and slid the brightest amongst her hair, until at last the story came to her, or so I must assume, and she began.