Thagdar the Immutable

Les Sklaroff

When You and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh, but the long, long while the World shall last,
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As the Sea's self should heed a pebble-cast.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Engaged in one of his eight Ritual Feuds, the autarch Hohax had arrived early with his pouch of bargaining scrolls at the stronghold of Furfeth the tree-stealer, and was making his way on foot up the overgrown path which led to the great bronze gates, when the hem of his cloak snagged on a wild sharkthorn bush. As he stooped to detach it the air scintillated around him. For a moment he thought it was simply fractured sunlight from the dew-laden spiders’ webs, but then with an abrupt lurch he found himself clutching for a handhold as he slid on his back down an unfamiliar loamy bank towards the unmistakable sound of fast-flowing water. Luckily his descent was checked by a tangle of exposed roots. He brushed the damp soil from his clothes, clambered to his feet, and with a distinct chill that was not entirely physical, realised that wherever he now was, it was already dusk, and that he had dropped his pouch of scrolls on Furfeth’s wretched path.

According to custom, when the statutory period of thirty years had elapsed following his (albeit unintentional) departure from the Realm, he was duly designated Hohax the Absent, and became a legitimate subject for a Quest.

Tjörsfal – in Tongue of the Realm literally [the place] beyond the Veil - impinged obliquely on the Realm in regions subject to unpredictable fluctuations in coherence. In practical terms, this meant that a suspected Veil, the fuzzy patch of air associated with a dimensional intersection, might turn out to be only a cloud of spores from a hippock plant, or an unfortunate incidence of blurred vision. Moreover, finding a reliable transition point had always been something of a dangerous gamble. These phenomena were infrequent, appeared randomly, and seldom persisted for more than a few hours. The Realm was devoid of theoretical physicists, but its denizens were strong on responses to challenge, and so there had developed the rite of the Perennial Quest. . It was open to any autarch to undertake alone a search for lost predecessors, some of whom, like Hohax, having slipped through a Veil by accident and failed to locate a viable exit, had been involuntary exiles in Tjörsfal for many decades. The women of the Realm, none of whom were known to have become Absent, had so far stoically refrained from active Questing, and seemed always to be able to justify remaining Realmside of a Veil.

Not for nothing was Thagdar known, both in the Realm and in Tjörsfal, as Thagdar the Immutable, although the precise reason for this was disputed, and after all this time his own memory tended to be a trifle unreliable. An autarch's longevity was not without its advantages, but in retrospect one aeon was much like another, and trivial details like epithets soon lost their significance.

Thagdar had been through the Veil in his youth, sometime during his reckless eighties or nineties, when the need to demonstrate his worth had been at its most demanding. He had probably been trying to impress Nereol, or Tirdra, or another of that generation of nubile women who comported themselves with such a teasing blend of aloofness and allure. By now they would be well into stately middle age, and leading respectable professional lives in lawfangling, prattlecraft or enwitting of the young.

Crouching with half-open jaws, the ugly tusked creature he had disturbed, easily the size of a large rathound, stared up at him with small baleful eyes.

He remembered, or fancied he remembered, the considerable fuss aroused in his community when a Veil had been reported in Noordelsvald, barely a boulder’s heft from his own keep. Summoned by clatterhorns and beacons, on such occasions all local autarchs would gather at Council as rapidly as possible near the site to determine which of them would venture forth on a Quest. The first to step forward would always be given preference, although sometimes, if there were two or more eager for the privilege, lots would need to be drawn. In rare cases where all present had previously Quested, news of the Veil would be sent to those living further afield, until a willing volunteer was found. The successful candidate would be furnished with a list of The Absent, and such details of their place and time of departure as were known.

Thagdar tried to recall how it had felt to make what must have been a momentous decision. He knew he had stepped forward quickly, thus earning the approval of his elders and the admiration of his peers. The Noordelsvald Veil was a wavering opacity above an area of discoloured ground which long ago had been occupied by copper-smelters. The site had been swiftly cordoned off with stakes to which warning ribbons had been tied. After a formal departure ceremony, equipped with his list, a day’s provisions, and a few other necessities, Thagdar had ventured into the shimmering cloud……

The sound of encouraging cries from his fellow autarchs ceased. There was a moment’s dizziness, before he was assailed by a sensory overload; a bewildering mosaic of brightness and shadow, thickly cloying heat, the fetid stink of animal dung. He looked down. His boots had sunk to the ankles in a thick floor of decaying leaf mould, sheared stems and fallen branches, quivering in places with unseen activity beneath the surface. To his immediate left he was suddenly aware of a low curdled snarling. Crouching with half-open jaws, the ugly tusked creature he had disturbed, easily the size of a large rathound, stared up at him with small baleful eyes. This was his first sentient encounter in Tjörsfal, and Thagdar’s immediate task was to survive.

He carried no weapons, other than his paring blade, which he was reluctant to blunt by whittling a spear. His burning-glass was of no immediate use, and in any case, judging from the ferocity of the snarls, there was not enough time to improvise a defence. There was a useful looking stick within reach, but he decided to try a placatory approach, and dug into his provisions sack. It took him the best part of an hour of quiet coaxing, and almost his entire supply of savoury nutcakes, before there was a mutual acceptance that neither beast nor autarch posed a threat to the other. The creature retreated, and Thagdar was able to concentrate on taking better stock of his surroundings.

Knowledge of Tjörsfal was garnered sporadically from autarchs who had successfully happened upon a Veil through which to return, usually alone, or exceptionally, with one of the formerly Absent: Bledbard the Inquisitive, Ygmors the Wily, Uldfane the Dissatisfied…. The accumulated information was gradually disseminated for the benefit of those in the Realm, so that those venturing on a Quest (or making an unbidden journey like Hohax) would have some awareness of the range of possible environments and climatic conditions that might be encountered, and a piecemeal overview of the inhabitants. Attempts had been made to construct maps, but it had not yet proved possible to join the disparate sections into a comprehensive whole, and the true physical extent of Tjörsfal remained unknown. Although borders were well established, mostly imposed by features such as mountains and bodies of water, there was no indigenous tradition of Tjörsfal cartography, as so little migration took place between enclaves.

One significant item of information retrieved by the autarchs, and which almost certainly had a bearing on Tjörsfalers’ seeming disinclination to travel, was that in much of Tjörsfal Veils were generally regarded with superstitious dread; not only because of their link with sporadically emerging autarchs, but because no native could approach a Veil without experiencing unendurable headaches. Anecdotal evidence hinted that on rare occasions severe comas had been caused by a Veil materializing in a populous area.

Around him towered a twisted mass of ropy vegetation, struggling to reach up through a maze of leaves to where bright shards of light broke through the high canopy. He glanced behind him, where for now the Veil still persisted, its flickering haze blending into the chiaroscuro of the forest while making the view through it impenetrable. Having no clue as to his bearings, Thagdar began picking his way through a glistening network of stems and vines, trying to avoid the beads of gummy resin which caught at his clothing. He found a thick fallen stalk, almost his own height, its leaves already completely consumed, but sturdy enough to serve as a means to prod the ground, or push aside obstructive spikes and tendrils. So began the Quest of Thagdar the Immutable.

In terms of an autarch’s lifespan it was a remarkably short episode – barely as long as a year, but time enough to provide future historians with debatable events. Those initial weeks spent in the forest had probably been the most exacting, having to adapt to the sticky heat, avoid lurking predators with fangs or mandibles, forage for food which was not instantly emetic or impossibly out of reach. He learned how to use threadlike vines, which had great tensile strength, knotting them into a mesh strong enough to serve as a protective podlike hammock. By the afternoon of the twentieth day Thagdar noticed that the floor of the forest had an increasingly steep downward slope, and as the canopy thinned he finally emerged at the bank of a broad sluggish river, across which he could see a distant cluster of huts. He found a suitably secluded spot where he was able to rinse the sweat and grime from his body, and subject his clothes to a thorough wash, afterwards hanging them on a convenient spiny bush, and allowing them to dry in the heat of the oddly bloated-looking sun. He converted his hammock into a casting-net, with which he scooped a substantial number of fishlike creatures from the shallows, and at last made practical use of his burning-glass to create a cooking fire. As the first protein he had consumed for several weeks, he found the meal unusually satisfying, and to his considerable relief it was not rejected by his digestive system. He proceeded to cook the uneaten portion of his catch, and packaged it securely in a large leaf for later consumption.

One benefit of an autarch’s longevity was a capacity for patience. Thagdar was in no rush to cross the river. He systematically explored the stretch of bank along the forest’s edge, ascertaining that there was no bridge as far as he could see in either direction. He tested the depth of the water, studied its currents, assessed what natural materials were available in the vicinity, and returned to the forest. Here he began collecting a quantity of the sticky resin he had previously tried so hard to avoid, as well as the fallen arm-thick hollow stems of a tough bamboo-like plant. After some days he had lashed together a serviceable raft which he caulked with the resin, and using a long stripped branch of a denser wood as a makeshift pole, propelled himself safely across the expanse of water towards the huts.

It was mid-afternoon when he reached the far side, using his versatile hammock to moor the raft to a bankside sapling. The huts, arranged in groups of five around a well-established central tree, were solidly built timber structures with thick glazed windows and a porch-like entrance under a thatched roof. Around the base of each tree was a sturdy pentagonal bench. There were no signs of life apart from a few rust-coloured creatures with stubby wings scavenging lethargically in the dirt. They ignored his approach. Thagdar stooped to peer in through the windows of the first few huts. Although there were obvious signs of recent habitation, they appeared to be deserted. Thagdar decided that after his recent exertions it would do no harm to rest for a while. He made himself as comfortable as possible on the bench, and was asleep within seconds.

He awoke to a subdued cacophony of voices. Stretching his limbs, he yawned, and rose to a sittting position. The voices abruptly quietened. Beyond the pool of shadow cast by the tree at his back sat an assembly of villagers. At a glance he estimated there must be at least a hundred of them, seated on plump circular cushions that reminded him of pancakes he had eaten as a child. A figure detached itself from the foremost row, and took a few steps towards Thagdar, keeping his eyes downcast. Unlike the others, who wore knee-length garments, he was clad in what Thagdar took to be a ceremonial robe, and flaunted a necklace of large polished stones set in a bright metal chain of complex design.

‘’I am Pume, head of these Eruen pentages,’’ he stated in a confident tenor, curiously accented, but recognizably Tongue of the Realm. ‘’How may we be of service to you, O Tark? It is rare indeed that our world is honoured by a visit from beyond the Veil.’’ This last phrase was accompanied by a ritual gesture: back of hand raised with fingers splayed across closed eyes. The same gesture swept like a wave through the seated pentagers. Pume stepped back deferentially as Thagdar stood up, amid an apprehensive murmuring from the crowd.

Thagdar’s voice was a full octave deeper than Pume’s, and its resonance carried his words to the furthest pentager. ‘’Thagdar of the Realm. I greet you and your people, Pume of the Eruen. I come in Quest of others of my kind. He smiled down at them. ‘’You need not fear me. I mean you no harm, and have no other objective, except, in due course, to find a Veil through which to return.’’ Arms lifted again at the word ‘’Veil’’, and a sea of hands splayed like a reef of choreographed starfish.

‘’If any here have heard rumours of another Autarch, no matter how distant, I bid you bring news to me, and I will continue my journey in whatever direction it leads. Meanwhile, I would welcome a private place to rest, and later perhaps a little refreshment, if it can be spared.’’

Pume looked up boldly. ‘’Gladly, O Tark. We have already prepared a pallet for you in our Summoning Hall, which is where we gathered in concern and astonishment when first you were seen braving the great water. We will happily provide as much sustenance as you require. As for your noble Quest, I regret that no others of your kind are known to be within the reaches of our Eruen land, but we will send our swiftest runners to make enquiries of our neighbours to the west and north, the Kerrel-ren. South and east, of course, flows the wide Shrepp, on which we Eruen are not accustomed to float. Our runners will return within a week, and with fortune’s blessing, may bring news to please you.’’ Pume bowed, and Thagdar was escorted to the Summoning Hall, where he was duly given spacious quarters, and offered trays of local delicacies. Among these were neatly curled strips of smoked meat in a paste of sweet herbs, a thick spicy soup sprinkled with flakes of baked fish, a medley of fresh fruits, some with edible decorations, and sucking-sticks of a sun-dried bean which he was told induced (at least in the Eruen) a sense of mild euphoria.

The voices from the ground were deemed to be the ultimate test for Witbleg

Unfortunately, the news from Kerrel-ren was largely negative. The first runner to return, from the north, could find no-one with any memory of an autarch visiting that territory. From the west came no more than tantalising hints. Lorp, a wizened documentarian, had unearthed some fragmentary records of his grandfather’s which told of the brief sojourn of an autarch in the mountainous region known as Ennet, which lay to the far west. Slight though this information was, for Thagdar it was at least a starting-point. He consulted his list of The Absent, but there was no way of telling precisely which of them had passed through Ennet. However, the dating of Lorp’s fragments narrowed the possibilities. As Thagdar had now confirmed from his own experience, the length of days and nights in Tjörsfal seemed little different from that in the Realm, and if the years were also comparable, despite the odd appearance of the sun, it was likely that the autarch referred to must have been one of those known to have left the Realm during his own childhood. Of these, Uldfane the Dissatisfied was among the few notably retrieved, having been found living with stoical resentment as a desert nomad by Jodric the Delirious. By Thagdar’s calculations, that left either Molgrim (formerly the Nimble) or Witbleg (formerly the Unsurprised).

In return for their hospitality, Thagdar instructed a few of the more intrepid Eruen in the craft of simple boat-building, and in basic principles of navigation, allaying their fears about the hazards of floating on the Shrepp, pointing out the advantages of fishing in deeper waters, and even of crossing to the far shore, where he described to their open-eyed amazement the potential storehouse of resources that lay beyond.

The autarch Molgrim the Nimble had famously escaped pursuit by a frightened pack, school, herd or wedge of fin-beaked homing terrapins, as they rampaged through his vineyard, snapping at anything that moved. What had frightened them was unknown; a sudden cloud, perhaps, or the distant wail of a taunting-horn. Wisely, on hearing the peculiar clacking thunder of their approach, Molgrim had pulled a basket over his head, and lain face down in an irrigation furrow until they had passed. It is questionable whether total stillness is strictly equivalent to being quick on one’s feet, but autarchs tended to be stuck with whichever soubriquet earned the greatest approval in the shortest time.

Witbleg’s reputation was probably more securely based. Historical prattlecraft confirmed that what had begun as simple observation of his equable behaviour in response to unexpected events had gradually developed into a kind of sport. Among the short-lived, such activities would be called ‘pranks’ or ‘practical jokes’, but autarchs had both the time and the sophistication to plan sudden events in meticulous detail, and, more importantly, well in advance. Some autarch clans had conspired for generations to test Witbleg’s unflappability. They would meet in secret in each other’s keeps and strongholds, or at an agreed neutral venue, at times when Witbleg had been reliably lured elsewhere, away from the wood-carving at which he was particularly adept, and which occupied much of his time.

Various experiments were conducted, involving elaborately produced mirages, dyed snow, briefly displaced or duplicated landmarks… Witbleg remained untroubled, even by the discovery that, seemingly overnight, the foliage of the trees which enclosed much of his land had turned a strangely flickering blue. On closer inspection it could be seen that they had become populated with a species of bat previously unknown to the area, Something about the trees was clearly attracting them, as they clung fluttering to every available branch and twig, twittering insanely for almost an entire day before vanishing en masse as quickly as they had apparently arrived, leaving behind only peculiarly acrid spatterings of guano around each tree, which affected the alkalinity of the soil for many months afterwards.

The voices from the ground were deemed to be the ultimate test for Witbleg. Considerable time and planning had been invested in the construction of an extensive system of underground pipes. Each pipe had an appropriately coded speaking cone at one end. The tower in which these converged was equipped with farlooking tubes, so that Witbleg’s movements could be observed and matched to the relevant concealed emerging-point. At the far end, protected by a fine mesh, and carefully angled so as not to allow water to seep in, each pipe would be camouflaged by a thorny shrub or a clump of sharpgrass. The camouflaged ends happened to lie along Witbleg’s habitual walking routes.

A thin mist swirled around his ankles as Witbleg strode along the narrow path that led from the south-west gate of his keep towards the sea. He breathed in the pleasantly damp air, savouring as the day warmed, the strengthening tang of gently decomposing marine organisms, looking forward to setting out on the water for a few challenging hours in the craft he had recently had refurbished, carving the prow himself with the emblematic head of a swordbird. A voice near his feet called his name. Odd, he thought, pausing for a moment to frown at its apparent source; unquestionably a small bush, not normally given to communication. He reflected that he had had a similar experience the previous day, when he had thought he heard a hollow laugh emanating from a tussock, but he was not in the habit of conversing with plants, and continued on his way.

Eventually, the conspirators had to concede that for all their expenditure of time and effort, it had not been possible to evoke from Witbleg more than a slightly raised eyebrow or at most a vaguely tolerant smile, and their enthusiastic tests gradually dwindled to an embarrassed halt. These events had taken place while Thagdar was still in his infancy.

Thagdar travelled west, passing through Kerrel-ren, where rumours of his presence among the Eruen had already spread through an excited populace. He was greeted by a selected entourage of twenty or so respectful citizens of mixed age and gender. Most of these were skilled in different disciplines: eldersong, plant-lore, speculance, fabrication, water-taming… They were clearly eager both to learn and to offer assistance if possible. A few of them seemed more detached and permanently watchful, automatically forming a protective cordon whenever crowds pressed too close. Thagdar tolerated the attention, spoke reticently of the Realm, and offered practical advice where he thought it would be understood and implemented. The journey across Kerrel-ren was facilitated by the provision of a recently developed ingenious rolling carriage which he was told operated by the compression of water. At the front a harnessed driver controlled a steering bar and a mechanism to engage the motor and regulate speed. Passengers sat in cushioned seats suspended in parallel rows from a sturdy frame, while at the back, mounted horizontally, a large wheel whined noisily inside a sealed housing, conveying its energy to the propelling rollers by a devious means they attempted to explain to Thagdar, who, unfamiliar with this kind of mechanical engineering, and inwardly reminiscing about Witbleg, failed to give the propulsive details his full attention.

For all its convenience, the carriage had not been designed to accommodate someone of Thagdar’s physique, and it was to his relief that they eventually reached what was literally the end of the road, in the foothills of Ennet. Here he took leave of his assigned companions, who with a courteous display of flustered embarrassment, made it clear that they were regrettably not able to venture with him into the mountainous terrain ahead, beyond which, they said, lived those known as Haask.

An unkempt ancient orchard sprawled over the lower slopes, a haven for birds and insects. Glossy berries lurked enticingly within dense clumps of brambles, and a squat variety of tree with smooth striated purplish bark was ripe with small but succulent dark pendulous fruit. The autarch had gratefully accepted the sackful of preserved foods provided for his onward journey, but was pragmatic enough to supplement them from the bounty around him. The system of rivulets which branched from a waterfall – a thin white streak visible below the nearest summit – ensured a ready supply of fresh water.

Days later, his acuity sharpened by increasing familiarity with the environment, Thagdar began to find evidence to support the probability that it was indeed Witbleg who had passed this way. Something about the fruit trees – those with the striated bark, belatedly drew his attention, perhaps because as he gained altitude they became sparser. He noticed that on every third or fourth tree one of the stout lower branches had been neatly truncated. The cuts were obviously very old, long-since sealed by encrusted sap, but had without doubt been made deliberately. Experimentally, Thagdar had used his paring knife to peel back a section of bark, revealing the smooth bluish wood beneath.

Showers were becoming more frequent, and perceptibly heavier. Underfoot the spongy ground had reached its absorption limit. Between outcrops of slippery rock his boots squelched at every step. He needed to reach the shelter he had glimpsed at intervals on his steady ascent. Ironically it lay partly concealed behind the cascading curtain of water which had been visible from far below, and which was now, as he could tell from the progressively increasing roar, only a short climb away. As Thagdar had expected, the force of the water carried it in a gushing parabola away from the cave-mouth, allowing him awkward and somewhat deafening access to the drier ledges of the interior.

He could see at once that there were signs of past habitation. There was a scattering of dessicated animal droppings, and in a far corner what looked in the gloom like a pile of bones. More surprisingly, propped against a wall to his left, he found a sturdy home-made broom with bristles of fine springy twigs, of a size suggesting it was designed to be wielded by someone of Thagdar’s own stature. On a wide natural ledge among remnants of cloth were several still serviceable tallow lamps and a simple friction-based igniting device. It was by their aid that Thagdar discovered that what had looked like a pile of bones was in fact a collection of blue fruitwood carvings.

The carvings were unquestionably Witbleg’s, for the most part lifelike representations of creatures familiar to Thagdar as denizens of the Realm: pillowfish, swordbirds, leaf-lizards, firriels. Some were more fanciful, equipped with frills, flaps, spikes and crests. It occurred to him that these may well be depictions of Tjörsfal animals he had not himself seen, as yet. Thagdar marvelled at the quality of the workmanship. He could see from the delicacy of the bladework that it must have been done with instruments finer than his own trusty paring blade.

He made himself as comfortable as possible in the cave, biding his time until the showery season had passed. Before leaving he carefully collected as many of the carvings as he could carry, intent on transporting them back to the Realm along wiith their maker, for he had no doubt that a patient and diligent search would eventually lead him to Witbleg.

Compared to some of the glaciated cloud-topped ranges of the Realm, whose slopes and passes had been among the playgrounds of his youth, the mountains of Ennet proved to be no more than modest hummocks. On reaching the final crest he saw he saw under a brightening dawn that the valley below opened into a broad fertile plain, irrigated by a river which wound towards the horizon. The verdant river-banks were dotted with slowly-moving specks, too far away to identify, but he assumed them to be grazing animals, while the variegated tessellation of the land, the fine threadwork of paths, and an unusually straight road stretching like a taut wire from a group of low buildings towards the sprawl of a distant town, hinted at a well-established community.

Features he had been unable to make out earlier gradually resolved themselves as he descended to the valley: farm buildings and machinery, hedges, channels, trellises abundant with climbing plants, pens and troughs, secluded areas containing fruiting shrubs. The soil was clearly fertile and well-tended. In the cultivated fields some of what he assumed to be cereal crops were already taller than the uniformly-clad workers he could now see harvesting them. Thagdar was not sure at first whether his presence had been noticed. Largely hidden among high feathery tufts, the agricultural workers wore protective hoods, and it was hard to tell whether an accidental glance in his direction was furtively curious or simply disinterested, until one of them distinctly made the same splay-fingered gesture across the eyes as Thagdar had encountered among the Eruen. Thagdar was sure that within seconds, all the workers in that field, and possibly those adjoining, had been made aware that an Autarch had arrived.

He waited politely for a few hours, delving into his provisions for refreshments, making sure that Witbleg’s carvings were still secure. No delegation appeared. Perhaps, as with the pentagers of Eruen, a conclave had gathered somewhere to discuss protocol and procedure. But in the fields there was no sign that work had been interrupted. He moved closer to the tall fence, seemingly fashioned from a kind of metallic string, which separated him from the field where he had seen the ritual Veil-sign. The toe of his left boot was obstructed by a stiff fuzzy greyish mass which turned out to be the carcase of a largish rodent, several days dead, he guessed. There was a prickling in the air, which momentarily brought a Veil to mind, but it was accompanied by a persistent low vibration which semed to come from the fence itself. Looking along the foot of the fence in both directions Thagdar could see odd sticky clumps of feathers and the occasional amorphous mass where whiteness of bone gleamed starkly amid decomposing flesh.

Thagdar concluded that the owners of this productive land had erected the strangely lethal fence to protect their valuable crops from specific pests or predators, at the obvious expense of other possibly harmless wildlife. He turned away, heading for the terminal buildings from which the road led directly to the distant town, where he hoped to find more communicative inhabitants. The buildings were of a smooth, dark stone, their walls featureless apart from high windows. They appeared to be interconnected by opaque tunnels. Having walked as far as possible round the perimeter of the site, he could find no access other than from the wide pathway leading from one of the fields, which was guarded on either side by the same hostile metallic barrier. Where this met the nearest structure a low dark recess vanished into the interior. From the largest building emanated a sound almost too deep to be heard; a regular low shuddering, like a great muffled heartbeat. He tried to imagine what kind of fantastic animal might be held captive here, and for what reason. In the Realm it would be unthinkable to deprive a wild creature of its freedom, just as that bleakly functional fence would never have been created by an autarch.

Where were the people? he wondered

Underfoot he felt the increased intensity of the thudding vibration as he approached the front of the building, from whose base, running parallel to the edge of the fields there emerged what Thagdar had mistakenly believed to be a roadway. In his experience, which even at his modest age he felt to be considerable, roads did not move. His senses were confused. It seemed he was staring at some impossibly huge, segmented leathery caterpillar, confined between low walls or banks, continuously renewing itself as it stretched away towards the hazy distance.

The realization struck him that what he was hearing and seeing could not be living things, but the products of unfamiliar engineering by… what were they called? Haask. He looked more closely, watching the chain of plump leathery segments as they slid slowly from below a long flap at the base of the building and were somehow propelled by the beating machinery, to roll away on… what? He strove for a probable solution. A bed of lubricated spheres, perhaps? No, too impractical. A channel of ice? No, for how could it be kept from melting? And then the obvious answer occurred to him. Water! What had looked like a road was in fact an aqueduct. The water was somehow being pushed or pumped by that hidden engine. And the segments themselves? They must be boats, or hollow boxes containing the harvested crops, which he presumed had been processed in the adjoining buildings, and they were simply being made to float on a steady stream, unhindered, to that distant conurbation.

Where were the people? he wondered. Surely even the unseen machinery would need attendants. Not that he had noticed any doors. He shrugged. He must move on if he wanted to reach the town before dark. The most direct route would be to follow the path of the canal, or better still… Stepping down to the low embankment he tested the surface of one of the slowly passing containers with the flat of his hand. The material – he could not be sure whether it was animal hide, felt strong, resilient. The smell of grain was pungently sweet. Gathering his bags, Thagdar clambered on to the next container and settled down to enjoy the leisurely ride.

The landscape drifted by, no longer cultivated fields, but an expanse of scrub bristling with spindly vegetation. Low piles of weathered ochre rock were pockmarked with holes which may have been nests or burrows. After a while the ground to his right filled with irregular patches of a thick mossy growth, so dark a green it was almost black. Beyond these, through thickets of reeds there flashed the occasional glint of the river he had seen from far above. To the left, a grove of thin trees gradually coalesced into a stretch of forest, broken only by deep shadowy glades, from whose depths once or twice he fancied he saw pairs of eyes staring back at him. Ahead, the long line of covered containers narrowed towards a thin dark bar in the distance, perhaps a bridge. As it grew imperceptibly closer, Thagdar saw that it lay solidly across the canal. Peering at it with some concern, he could detect no appreciable gap between its underside and the convoy of grain on which he was travelling. When it was close enough for him to see the bristles sweeping across the top of the containers, clearing them of stray leaves and twigs, insects, bird-droppings and potentially larger débris, today in the form of an autarch stowaway, he decided it would be prudent to disembark. He jumped down, making his way along the wooded side of the canal, past the obstructive ‘bridge’, into the outskirts of the town.

The procession of grain-boats disappeared below a wall of what he took to be a warehouse; a rectangular building of a smooth dark material similar to those at the other end of the canal, but considerably larger, with many more windows, and with an opening in one of its longer sides through which Thagdar could at last glimpse people and machinery busily at work within. He watched the bales of grain being plucked effortlessly from their containers by a series of mechanical grasping devices, which swung them under supervision onto trolleys which were then guided out of sight by pairs of uniformed workers for further processing and distribution. Intrigued by the prospect of seeing the canal without its cargo he made his way round to the far side of the building from where the dim roar of activity was incongruously usurped by the sound of enthusiastic young voices at play. To his great surprise, the flow of water failed to emerge from the other side. Thagdar assumed it must therefore continue its journey underground, or perhaps be piped elsewhere by Haask engineers.

A low hedge separated the warehouse grounds from a spacious park, planted with trees of a species Thagdar had not previously seen, their trunks obscured by tapering branches spreading downwards from a central crown. Haask strolled among these, mostly singly or in pairs. Some were clustered around the many strange helical structures which rose above their heads. In the foreground small children were energetically playing a chasing game around a maze of winding paths. A group of broodfolk or enwitters stood nearby, occasionally calling out words of encouragement or caution which were neither familiar to Thagdar, nor significantly heeded by the children. Thagdar stood watching unobtrusively, smiling to himself at their unfettered enjoyment.

The game was interrupted when one of the sharper-eyed youngsters suddenly noticed him. A confused melée ensued, while the adults balanced their protective responsibilities against the intense curiosity of the children. At length three of the adults decided to approach, a man and two women. They made no ritual gesture, but stood glancing nervously up at him from the other side of the hedge, and whispering to each other with quiet urgency. To forestall their questions, he reached into one of his bags, and held up for them to see a carving of a short-winged crested lizard, a creature similar to those he had seen scavenging among the pentages in Eruen.

He inclined his head. ‘’I am Thagdar of the Realm. I seek a fellow autarch, skilled at transforming lumps of wood into the semblance of living creatures. His name is…’’

‘‘…’Vitbleeg!’’ chorused the three Haask, their uneasiness swiftly evaporating.

Once he had adjusted to the barbaric dialect of Siorn, Thagdar learned that although rarely seen in public, Witbleg did indeed live here among the Haask, and had done so as long as the local inhabitants could remember. Many of his Tjörsfal apprentices had become professional craftsmen, even founded their own workshops. Under Witbleg’s supervision the sculptures in the park had been created at the rate of one a year, each one a series of elaborate carvings winding around a central pillar.

Thagdar was led to Witbleg’s lodgings, a single-storey building of decorative honey-coloured stone on the far side of the park, a strange contrast to the high blocky fortress of his native keep. Word had spread rapidly. Crowds of Haask had gathered to witness in their own town of Siorn the historic meeting of two Autarchs of the Realm. They stood at a respectful distance as Thagdar strode up to the disproportionately tall door and (ignoring the bright metal disc which would have sounded a discreet chime) struck two resounding blows with his fist. There was an awed silence among the Haask. After a few moments the door opened, and Witbleg stood facing his unexpected visitor. ‘’Ah, young Thagdar,’’ he acknowledged, his leathery features creased into a brief smile of recognition. He paused, then with mock seriousness wiggled his fingers in front of his face. ‘’Is there a Veil? No? Then come in, and we will discuss our departure at leisure.’’

Witbleg divulged that the Veil he had stumbled through from the Realm had formed on the shore while he was searching for driftwood at sunrise, and had transported him to the slopes of Ennet under a night sky filled with strange constellations. He had followed the sound of that same waterfall, and made a temporary home in the cave, venturing out for food and other utilizable materials and patiently observing the local wildlife before deciding to seek more civilized accommodation. Having descended Ennet further to the west than Thagdar, he had first needed to negotiate the marshy ground which lay on the far side of the river Thagdar had glimpsed from above, making far more circuitous the route that eventually brought Witbleg to Siorn and the Haask. He had sometimes wondered whether any evidence of his unpremeditated trail might one day be investigated, and complimented Thagdar on his persistence, genuinely flattered that he had gone to the trouble of rescuing so many of the abandoned blue fruitwood carvings.

During the time Witbleg had spent in Tjörsfal there had been occasional reports, mostly belated, of intermittent Veils occurring in areas beyond Siorn. He also confessed to Thagdar that if he had not become so preoccupied with his work he could probably have made an effort to reach some of these, but over the years he had grown genuinely fond of the little Haask, some of whom had shown considerable crafting skills.

A further seven months elapsed before a Haask messenger breathlessly reported that the longspeakers were saying that a Veil had just materialized close to Ferfol, the neighbouring town, within easy travelling distance, though not without its hazards. It was a largely barren stretch of land prone to persistent subsidence caused by the activities of zhirren, a notoriously elusive species of burrowing rodent, whose fur was greatly prized by glove-makers. The area had been quarantined, and was under the temporary protection of a volunteer guard from Ferfol.

There was no time for a ceremonial departure. Thagdar had already cajoled Witbleg into pre-packing most of the fruitwood carvings, together with a selection of his more recent work in other varieties of Tjörsfal wood. Witbleg ensured that certain pieces would be left as tokens of gratitude to the families of Haask he had come to know. They needed little other baggage for their return to the Realm. A groundhauler, normally an agricultural vehicle, was hastily commandeered to convey them to the outskirts of Ferfol, followed by a straggling procession of Haask on foot and in small self-propelled carriages.

They halted at the first of several makeshift barriers, where the two autarchs bade farewell to their followers, and were escorted onwards by a stocky contingent of taciturn Ferfol guards, all of whom looked as though they would have preferred to be elsewhere. Beyond the final barrier a ring of burning torches surrounded the vaguely glimmering blur that they both recognized as a Veil. The ground was dry and uneven, covered with the blisters and hollows that signified zhirren territory. The guards explained, with many a dramatic gesture, that it was liable to give way under pressure, and showed them the reinforced matting on which they would need to spread their weight in order to reach the Veil.

For the autarchs it was a thoroughly undignified way to attempt to leave Tjörsfal, having to lie spreadeagled, slithering forward like ungainly reptiles, tugging at their baggage a fraction at a time, over sections of stiff fibrous matting, ensuring that the mat behind them could be pulled round to become the next one to cross. The coarse fibres caught at their clothing and bags. Knowing that the Veil could vanish at any moment, they traversed the hazardous stretch with as much haste as caution would allow. They were now well within the ring of torches, from which they could see the tendrils of smoke drawn to its heart like pulled threads. With a mutual nod of agreement they climbed warily to a standing position. Beneath them the brittle shells of old zhirren burrows immediately began to collapse. As Witbleg stumbled, Thagdar’s quick reflexes responded, and his steadying arm pulled them both forward, into the nebulous flickering that led directly back to the Realm.

It was almost dark. They pitched forward into a heap of boulders that had once been a section of wall. Luckily their precipitate arrival was cushioned by centuries of mossy growth, and apart from minor bruises they were unharmed. Now clear of the prickling aura of the Veil, they could see that the sky was overcast. Thunder growled in the distance. A fitful wind stung their faces with fine sleet. Uncertain of exactly where they were, or when they would reach the protection of a keep, the two autarchs started to pick their way in the gloom over the uneven ground, both beginning to relish the indefinable comfort of being home.

It was little more than a century later that rumours began to spread from the northernmost reaches of the Realm that Hohax the Absent had returned. The consensus of those highly competent in prattlecraft was that he had acquired some totally unsuspected information relating to Tjörsfal which would be of considerable benefit both to involuntary travellers and to those choosing to venture on future Quests. However, he had made it clear that his first priority concerned a quantity of missing trees, and had issued fair warning that his bargaining skills were now honed to such a degree that mere scrolls would be an inconvenience.

© Les Sklaroff 2015 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 18:27 Fri 31 Jul 2015
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