Chapter Eighteen: A Chance Reunion

I do hate when chapters begin with their narrators waking up. It’s a despicable trope. Waking scenes and dream sequences—the calling cards of mediocrity. And yet, I must say, when I awoke this morning it felt worth writing about. Trees huddled about a stream as it wove through the clearing outside my window, the same stream that yesterday had been little more than a dry bed surrounded by shoots of grass. Now, it warbled out of sight, licking the fringes of green that blanketed the yard and scraped at Édara’s boots as she stood at the well, tugging the bucket up from the depths. A few birds flitted between branches. Leaves fluttered at the passing of their wings. And beneath it all a stillness weighed in the air. Not silence. Not the quiet of a held breath. This was the settled earth and dew-thick breeze of the slowing of the world.

Soon the nights would grow long and the winds would whisper to a halt. Across Alvyria, peasants would be stocking up on grain and water, perhaps sowing the deep-rooted crops that could grow steady through the cold, and praying to all the gods they could name that the next dawn would come soon. I am old enough to have seen the dead years between dusk and dawn.

I had hunkered into a keep near the Hart, Sásuravoll, during the fifth tide of the year—Bloodtide when the second sun hangs just at the horizon, casting forests and plains and deserts alike in shades of red. The petty king there had stored troves of grain within the keep’s walls and drew the bridge, closing his court in for the night. I sat in his hall and listened to his various skalds and bards recite tales of heroes who stalked beasts and slew fae and fought against the dead gods, but in truth my mind lingered on the peasants shut out beyond the moat, huddled beneath thatched roofs, clutching one another for warmth. Between tales, the Wandering Moon cooled the feast hall with its light, the bricks pallid and dead to the touch. Winds wove to their ends about the beams holding aloft the vaulted ceiling.

After a time, one of these bards mounted the stage. I remember him distinctly, for he had a son who clutched his leg, despite his father’s protest, as he recited a poem. He gave a few apologies for his son’s behavior. Some courtiers laughed, others cooed, and all forgave. The boy was an Ó’Halén, he said, which made little sense to me at the time but which I later learned was the name of a house which ruled over a provincial hamlet in the north, and he blamed this for the boy’s temperament. I learned then the sensation of not knowing a joke all others find immensely humorous, which I imagine I am now imparting onto you.

But I digress. The bard with the boy clutching his leg told us tale, going well into the night—or what amounted to night, with the sun ever beneath the horizon—which spoke of some chivalric time when strapping warriors and shrieking maidens had inhabited these lands, a time which I am sure only ever existed in the minds of over-imaginative writers and, perhaps, children playing at heroism with sticks and homemade cloaks. But he told it well enough, and perhaps if I am feeling particularly impassioned, I’ll recall it as best I can and provide a translation here amongst my notes. But I suppose that is better left for another time.

I gathered up my belongings and stepped out into the common room of the inn, careful to ease the door shut behind me. I’ve ever been early to rise, and this breeds a particular sort of behavior. Rummaging about behind the bar, I found a kettle and set it over the hearth, then rustled through the various trinkets I’d found on my travels until I wrenched free a burlap pouch and emptied a bit of ground myíc leaves into my palm. I’d gotten ahold of this pouch in my travels along the border of the Hinterlands, near the river Sorná, where they brew it into a sort of tea. Here, they might call them ‘maíc,’ or ‘herb,’ and I have it on good authority the word descends from our emekoín or some variation on it.

I wet a strip of cloth with a dram from my waterskin and took to worming it into one of my cups, depositing bits of dust into the hearth, until it was sufficiently clean, then packed what I had left of the maíc inside. Filled near to the brim, I pressed it down with the flat of my palm, folded the strip of cloth over the opening, then pierced it with a straw and set it upon the lip of the hearth. I’d not come up with the process myself, I must admit; it was taught to me sitting around a fire with a few other travelers, as so many things have been.

As the kettle threatened to whistle, jostling the cap on its hinge atop the spout, I caught the squealing of hinges and turned. The innkeeper, Liam, trudged out of his own room, tucked at the back of the inn, and reached down beneath the bar. He muttered something and stood back up, propping his hands on his hips.

I see you’ve become acquainted with my kettle.

I didn’t think you’d be awake this early, I said. Forgive me. I’ve a habit of making myself at home. Have you ever had maíc?

As Liam strolled over, I fetched another cup out of my pack and took to cleaning it as well. But he clapped his own down on the table beside the other chair, positioned by the hearth, and nestled down amidst the pillows with a groan.

I’m not usually awake now, he said, but I didn’t sleep too well.

This’ll perk you up. I took his cup and divided the maíc between us, then unhooked the kettle and took to pouring it over the grounds. It’s from Akhon. Far north. I’m told their fishermen drink it to stay up into the night, when certain fish come up to the ice.

What business did you have up there?

I’m a chronicler, I said, handing him his cup. I’ve business everywhere.

You know, I’ve met one of you before, back a while when those two had just gotten here. Liam wagged a hand towards the upper floor. He drew a long sip, studying me over the rim of his mug, then rested it atop his knee. Wasn’t exactly personable, to say the least.

There’re only two other chroniclers in Alvyria. Well, one and a half, really. I’d imagine you’ve met the half.

She called herself Yera. That ring a bell?

Her real name is Yavhen Kel.

Huh. Liam massaged his brow. How do you know it was her?

Like I said, only a couple others out there, and only one of them wouldn’t use her real name. I searched my bag with a groping hand and came up clutching a ring that had slipped to the bottom of the pack. It wore the symbol of our guild on a silver face: a tome opened wide to reveal the symbol of the two moons, one on each page, in different stages of waning. Around the tome, a thin cursive read, ‘from the first dawn to the last,’ in the tongue of my homeland. I handed it over, and Liam rolled it in his palm, studying the way the firelight glinted off the band of silver.

What metal is this?

Io, I said, from north of Alvyria. This is my seal, to prove I’m still a member of the guild. Kel would not have had her own.

But she showed me one.

Stolen. I massaged above my eye, where a dull ache had sprouted just beneath my brow, beating in the bone itself. She took it from the last chronicler sent to Alvyria. Well, from his body, that is. He died some years back. I was sent to take his place. Every high realm has a chronicler.

Interesting, interesting. Liam weighed the ring in his palm, then passed it back. How did he pass? If you don’t mind my asking. Just not often you hear about members of such a… domestic guild earning early graves.

He played a little loose with our principles, I said. Fought in one of the riverland’s wars against the Isles. And he was a member of the Runic Order.

A weight caused Liam’s shoulders to bow, and he leaned his head on his hand and stared at the kettle hooked over the flames. A huntsman, he said, half to himself. Then I’m glad I met this Kel and not him.

You’d regret those words, if you knew her. She was exiled. Fled to Alvyria, where the guild’s presence is sparse. I’m sure she’s still dabbling in the sort of things that earned her banishment in the first place.

What is it that she dabbled in?

I don’t think I’m at liberty to say. The guild’s oath.

Liam shrugged and took another sip of maíc. Color flushed through his cheeks, and he blinked, shaking his head. Cathanó sheín, he muttered under his breath. Damned stuff has bite. I can’t believe you drink this to wake yourself up.

It’s the bite that does it, I said. I can make some tea, if you want it.

No, no, I’m not a coward. But as he took another drink, a bead of sweat formed at his crown and rolled past his brow, leaving a trail down his cheek. You got Sóro talking last night. How was the story?

Informative. I searched for better words in the surface of my maíc. You wouldn’t know when he’s going to wake, would you?

Liam pondered the question, chasing a stray leaf around the rim of his tea with the tip of his finger. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s already awake. But he won’t come down for a while. I might recommend you go to the festival or explore a bit. Can’t say for sure how long he’ll be.

Thank you. I downed the last of my maíc and shouldered my pack. Do let me know when he comes down.

Of course. Liam toasted with his mug. And thank you for this.

Perhaps tomorrow you can share some of your coffee.

A fair trade.

With that, I strolled out of the inn and turned towards Nedyeser, where the festival would surely be picking back up. This was the first day of Dawntide of the twenty-first year of the new age; the year twenty-two hundred and thirty-seven according to their calendars, beginning with the arrival of their peoples in Alvyria; some seven thousand years since the first dawn and twenty thousand since their ancestors first arose in the old world. I’ve studied their histories, and I’ve translated their folktales—to think they’ve come so far still astounds me, though it is but a few years compared to the history of my home.

I took a few moments as I walked to marvel as they hoisted flags and tents in the clearing beneath the keep, and as parades of horses encircled the moat, knights donning their gleaming steel and squires hurrying about with breastplates and plumed helms.

When I first received my assignment to these realms, I thought I would be descending into a backwater of petty kings and barbarians, barely able to string together a few words, let alone remember those of their ancestors. Yet I suppose that is why I’ve lingered so long in the riverlands. I know not how the Valkons or the Paroekens or the Venerene treat their histories, but to the riverfolk these myths are at once old and alive, ancient beyond memory and full of breath. I strolled around tents in search of a skald or bard—somewhere I could sit a while and get my share of the old tales of their peoples to pass the time.

The castle, Nedyávell, stooped atop a mound, encircled by a moat and a second set of lower walls. Conical spires sprouted from the earth at the manor’s four corners, and atop each a banner shone, bearing a black hound on a yellow field. The winds moaned quiet over the fields, animating the ends of each flag, but I imagined on a good day they could announce the domain of their house across the entire clearing. On the eastern side, the outer walls tapered into a bridge, where a set of gates connected the keep to the green, and beside it that old oak leaned out over the moat.

Eventually, I happened upon a frame tent pitched over a stretch of grass, near the size of a grand hall, tables and chairs set up along its length. A number of people shifted about beneath the canopy, toasting mugs and loitering beside tables of food as several musicians strung out a tune nearby. But one of them gave me pause—a man with a western lute propped upon his knee. He wore a faded tunic, and he sat, seemingly transfixed by his own fingers fluttering down the strings. Those around him propped their instruments a while to fetch drinks between songs, but he remained there, drawing one leg up to his chest and letting the other dangle from his stool—the lute wedged against his hip, held aloft by long fingers and the delicate draw of his hand. Each pick and strum floated through the tent. The pat of my shoes interrupted them as I strolled through the crowd, over to where he sat.

Not often you see a tirina this far east, I said. And I would not expect you to be the one carrying it, Koda.

The lutist slowed the dance of his fingers over the strings and glanced up.

Tàni? His voice was a tremor that rose from deep in his chest and made his whole body tremble as he laughed. I should not be surprised to find you here. God has a funny way of spinning her webs, doesn’t she? To think we’d meet here of all places.

I thought I might run into you in Metir Keviv. I was there again, some months ago. I took a seat beside him and propped my pack in my lap. Koda was—well, suffice to say, an acquaintance, but it had been some time since we’d seen one another, and then a great distance lay between our last reunion and this festival, here. I searched his face a moment for some hint of his purpose, but the wrinkles deepened along his cheeks and his smile grew. He rejoiced in my not understanding, it seemed, so I returned a nod and nestled in my seat. How have you been? Has the hand mended?

Koda held his hand to the light and turned it over. A scar like a paint-stroke ran from his wrist to the knuckle of his middle finger—the tissue dark along the edge but white as bone at its center. He buried his hands in the folds of his cloak and shrugged.

I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there, he said. I certainly would not be here, playing this. He rapped a finger on the neck of the lute. Probably be laying in a shallow grave.

That seems a little much, I said. It wasn’t that bad.

You’re not the one who was stabbed.

No, but I treated the wound. Infection was the gravest danger. I don’t imagine bandits keep their blades sanitized and clean of rust.

A pitiful way to go.

Pitiable, maybe.

Koda smiled to himself, running a hand over the strings of his lute. What are you doing here, Tàni? I thought the Fair Lady had you nailed down at the Hart.

I caught news of someone I’ve been looking for. Couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come searching. But that should be something you’re familiar with—getting swept up on a whim or a whisper.

Must really be someone to earn your interest.

I thought so. I let my gaze drift over the crowds assembled beneath the tent and drew in a breath. But I can’t shake the sense that I’ve arrived too late.

Isn’t that what you do? You’re a chronicler, not an annalist.

And you’re a prince, not a pauper.

We all have our hobbies.

A chronicler’s duty is to record all the stories of a realm, real or otherwise. Histories as well. And this one hovers somewhere in between truth and fable. I just wish I could have been there to see it all happen.

Koda leaned his lute on the leg of his chair and kneaded the scar on his hand.

Have you been home lately? I asked.

I cannot say I’ve had the opportunity, he said. Shirena doesn’t fare well with this war. It’s better if I wait until things have settled down.

I’d thought it would pass your little island by.

Not quite. Sometimes I wonder how we’ve held on so long. But I suppose that is one benefit of being so small. We might have a dozen countries looking to subjugate us—Koda tossed a hand over his shoulder—but they’re also at each others’ throats, so we survive a little longer. We’ll make it through this. Made it through worse.

I wish I had your certainty.

You do, chronicler.

Is that so?

You know the world will turn.

I don’t think the chroniclers are the only ones to know that, I said. As peasants from the surrounding countryside trickled into the clearing from the main road, I glanced to Koda and shrugged. You wouldn’t know there was a war, if all you saw was this festival.

Imagine that’s not entirely by accident. Koda clapped a palm on the back of his lute. Well, I better get playing again, and I’m sure you’ve got a few stories to collect. It’s been a pleasant surprise.

Better than our last reunion.

I can’t disagree.

Koda plucked a few notes, and I knew that was as much of a goodbye as I would get out of him. Instead, I slung my satchel over my shoulder and stepped down off the stage, feeling the grasses crinkle under my boots, and set out amidst the tents.

I am certain this was a confusing little exchange, so allow me to explain. Only a bit though, I wouldn’t want to bore you with the muddy details. I’ve met with Koda half-a-dozen times, in three different realms, and with three different wars raging, and each time getting what information I can out of him is like yanking teeth from a tiger’s maw. He’s more likely to bite back with some quip than to part with a morsel of his tale. But I’m a chronicler, and we have our own particular way of pulling stories out of people.

From what I’ve gathered, he is a prince-in-exile from the port-city of Shirena, venturing through the realms. Many of the nobles from that area send their second and third children away; they have a long and storied tradition of overthrowing their eldest siblings, and so it is safer to ship them off. But Koda has a knack for appearing where the stories are thickest—that is, I suppose, to say that he seems to always be at the right place at the right time, and so our reunions are never a great surprise. This time, however, seemed more mundane than our last meetings. I took it then as a coincidence, though I can say now that there was more at work than luck.

The festival air frothed with the scent of ale and mud, and a dusty stench dried out my throat as I went—the sort of smell that only such gatherings can brew. I don’t know how else to explain it. There’s something rural to it: a holdover perhaps from the ancient festivals of the early days of the year, when pilgrims to this land had little else to do beyond drink and feast on the last of their stores before the new year’s harvest.

On the far side of the clearing, I spotted a dozen men carrying a great effigy onto the green. This one was a bundle of straw wrapped about with coils of rope so that the arms stretched out in mock surrender, sprouting fibrous fingers to the sky, and the legs were adorned with fabric that wore runic marks embroidered in silver. I’ve seen such effigies in the northlands that would have made this one seem a child’s doll, and when they burned, their roars trembled the soil beneath one’s soles and made the forests rattle their needles and slough snow to the dirt. There is a name for these things, beyond the mundane: Halva Bhaghóll, or Little King. The riverfolk brought them over when they settled these lands, and they’ve been burning them every year since.

But that is enough rambling for me. I feel a bit guilty, truth be told, for subjecting you to my little walk around the green and a conversation with an old friend—these are better left for a personal journal, rather than one meant to be read by so noble a reader.

Spying the sun over the tops of the trees, I decided to venture back to the inn to see if Khal had come down yet. The walk was as pleasant as it had been when I arrived. The trails were well-trodden, and the scent of pine needles filled me with the sense that I was where I belonged. Words are a poor substitute for the waving of leaves and the whispering of an old and sweet wind through the boughs.