Chapter Eleven: Our Illusions of Beauty

I wish I had better words for what I saw then.

Édara hobbled down, arm in arm with the man who would have once been known as Khal Mhuchelván. He wore that old cloak I had come to expect in the stories of those who had witnessed him: a swathe of maroon fabric patched with strips of cloth and silver thread. And though his hair had grayed along the roots to an ashen hue, I could tell that it had once held a darkness to it—not the stale black of shadows but the living of charcoal. His skin, which in most tales held a rich russet-brown, seemed now in the light filtering through the windows overhead more umbral than I had imagined. The light parsed each wrinkle and nick across his cheeks, forming a web of shadows that leapt and interlinked, but beneath his eyes there was only the heaviness of memory. Eyes searched the floorboards before each step. Fingers interlaced with Édara’s as she set him down within the chair across from me.

Sóro, I said. My name is Ténai. I am a chronicler.

He saw me then, through the panes of his eyes, and for a moment I suppressed an impulse to grin at some little joke between us—something I couldn’t quite put a name to. But then, as a lens flicking in and out of alignment, the light flashed away, and his gaze drifted back to the hearth and the flames.

You may call me Khal, he said, searching his pockets with quivering fingers a moment. Édara, my love, you wouldn’t….

Édara nodded, hurrying to the innkeep and returning with a strip of parchment. She lit it in the fireplace, and Khal produced a pipe which he pinched between cracking lips. Do forgive me, he said. It’s a foul habit.

Once Édara had lit it, he cupped the bowl and drew in a breath. Khal closed his eyes. It must have been a long journey. You came from… was it Keirigan?

Mávben, I said, tucking my journal in my lap. It was not too bad, all things considered. I was lucky enough to catch Tidings in Féavoll.

Oh, that must have been a delight. Khal toyed with a curl of his beard, a smile tugging at his lips. We went there once, Mara and I.

Édara, his wife said. And you shouldn’t be so quick to drop your name.

Khal threw a hand over his shoulder. Édara and I.

I glanced between them. Would you prefer I call you Sóro?

Édara nodded, but Khal gave a chuckle that sounded as if there were ash in his throat. It would be a waste of energy, he said. You wouldn’t keep up such a trivial little game between us, now would you?

This time I was the one to smirk. My creed requires that I ask.

You must be thinking, he said with a hand to his brow, that I am not entirely who you were expecting. I know that look well enough.

Not at all. I’ve only received many tales. Many different portraits of you, if you will. It isn’t that you aren’t what I expected, only that I didn’t know what to expect.

You are a diplomat. Khal shared a weary smile with Édara. Looking back to me, he flashed a wink. Please, do tell me, how is it up there?

Well, I didn’t stop by Keirigan, but…. And then it dawned on me that he was not asking after the northern peninsula of the riverlands but instead of my home. That, my creed does not mandate I say.

A pity. Khal raised a trembling finger to the ceiling, and his lips parted as if to speak. But a breath whispered past his lips, and he turned his gaze back down to the coals. It has been too long since I have spoken with someone of your experience. Tell me, chronicler, have you been to Mount Vómakháll?

I can’t say I have. Though I have heard it’s beautiful.

It is. It is. Khal drew a wide circle in the air, parallel to his legs. I was born there, you know, in a sense. Mhuchel is not too far away. At least, I did not believe it was so far away in my youth.

I’ve heard some stories of it, I said. You spent some time with your mother there.

So they would have you believe. And this time the flame lit in his eye and remained. He chewed at his lip to hold back a grin. No, I was born there, but only as my family traveled past on pilgrimage. Those were years—long years, old years, the sort of years you remember in fragments that seem to stretch on forever. Gods, I was young then. We had a caravan, our own little tribe. I was born in the year two hundred and sixteen of the Age of Strife, as the poets call it. Do you know what we called it? We Travelers had a different name.

I can’t say I do. I tugged my pack into my lap and withdrew my journal.

The year was twenty-thousand one-hundred and ninety-one, by our reckoning. Imagine that. Imagine if every Valkon poet south of the strait had to read off that many years. Makes you remember how old we are. How old the world is. He ran a hand down his face. A laugh withered in his throat, and the grin fell off his lips. An shéull an khólachnoll, they say. But there is no life here, chronicler. No beauty left. I’ve seen things.

Mhuchel, I said, rapping the tip of my pen on the page as I tried to wind the conversation back a ways. You wouldn’t be able to say more on your time there, would you?

Would I? Khal steepled his fingers and hummed. Would I?

It is not the end of the world if you can’t, I just….

No, no, I can. He waved a hand towards my journal. But if I’m going to tell my story, chronicler, I am going to tell it right and in full. I won’t have you walking away with only half of it. Right and in full. All of it. To the end.

That would be wonderful. I touched the nib to the page.

I do not share Mara’s—Édara’s hesitance, he said. You seem a good person, chronicler. You should know we’ve had more than one of you come before. They always seem to leave before the following morning. I’m not who they were looking for, I’d imagine.

I can promise you, I’ll see this to the end. I took an oath.

Then I will tell just a bit of it today. But you should stay here, tonight, and we can begin again tomorrow. I don’t know how long it will take me, truth be told.

Of course. Take your time.

Khal rested his head in his hand, glancing to Édara. Mhuchel, he said, yes, I do think I know where to begin. In the early tides of the year, the sun will melt iron left out on Vómakháll’s slopes. But in the later months, when the sky pales and sometimes you can even find snow on the coast, my mother and father would bring me there for Tidings. It is a Traveler’s tradition. If you can make the trip, you must. I suppose you may say my life began on its slopes.

Khal took Édara’s hand and ran his thumb along the back of her palm. Ask the historians, and they will tell you it came five years later. The poets might say twelve. I’ve heard a few attribute it to the reign of some caliph, almost two hundred years ago. Others say it was only last year. But for me, that day we set foot on Vómakháll’s slopes was the day that the tides turned and all our illusions of beauty were shown for what they were.