The first holy tree took five millennia to grow. The coral of the Lady’s Reef, eight centuries. The cloud which overcame Ge’et began as a single spore, doubling every day until it billowed miles in every direction.
Take each snowflake, each grain of ice. They are prisons for time, each one a single moment locked in eternity. The ice never changes; it is always changing. Here forever, gone with a flame, so is the seed’s potential under the gardener’s uneven hand.
Time is the second medium after ice. Only the unnatural magicians rush their seeds. Care must be taken for wonder to blossom.
After the sacrifice and the Keys there will be a time of Patience. For long whiles nothing may happen. The seasons which once marked such passage are now extinct but spans of time still mark living progress. Children will be born and die. See life churn and know that this Art is less fragile.
Remind the world that it too should be patient. Ensure that the seed is undisturbed except by those factors which will become part of its blossom. All can be lost at this stage of the Method. Be like the sun and with diligence you will at last be rewarded.
Without his veil Coyat’oc displayed that much more trouble. His eyes were small, like tiny bits of blue quartz, his nose perched like a falcon over his long, thin mouth. Crow’s feet and laughter wrinkles edged his pale features despite being no older than the Fencer, who counted less than twenty seasons.
Behind him stalked the older brave, come to watch the youth, to smooth over his misdeeds while allowing such ferocity to take its course.
There would be limits, this the Fencer knew well. He had seen this game enough, the young edge, the channels of culture aiming that edge outwards. He frowned and stole a drink of the Trumpeter’s ale. Peace always ended as a myth, just like Summer.
“Did you hear my playing?” asked the Trumpeter, out of breath.
“It was too much,” replied the Fencer.
“Simply in proportion to the profound sense of abandonment I felt.”
“Then it would’ve been best if I never came back so that your song might cause the Riddle to weep itself an answer.”
The musician caught sight of Coyat’oc demolishing his first drink. The alcohol shook through the nomad and he demanded another in broken Baranti.
“I feel we should go,” said the Fencer without taking his eyes off his nemesis. The brave sneered back and the old man smiled, tensions pulled and tugged through the smoky haze.
“Aw, no!” gasped the Trumpeter.
“Little reason remains to continue,” reasoned the Fencer.
It was true. Just a page brought them to Jomoth’orr and the White Jungle, a vague letter written by lost Clea concerning what, neither couldn’t say. There were diagrams of seeds and growing things and above it all two words translated by the musician as “Monath’s Method.” Far more vague than the blood soon to spill.
“The Jungle,” explained the Trumpeter, “you know it is there. Find its heart and we find the Method. If it can grow abundance like what we’ve seen out on the valley then think of that.”
“It would be the Answer to the Riddle.” The Fencer nodded reluctantly. That dream seemed so far off and the Riddle loomed close, waiting for its moment, like a spider.
With their debts paid and a deep tab opened with two of the three restauranteurs the adventurers were the heroes of the blue house. Money was the medium of communication with these people, words were mere attendants to the transfer of gold or flesh or blood. Several merchants attempted to hire the Fencer as a bodyguard or the Trumpeter as a minstrel.
Distracted hours went by. Night deepened and the lamps of the town slowly went out. Stars awoke, but none in the blue house knew of it. This was a different world, warm with knives, bright with coin, deep in the game of words.
Despite his minder Coyat’oc descended into an inebriated sea. The boy had little tolerance and much wealth, a poisonous combination. He plucked bit after bit from his sash to pay the serving girl who competed for his attentions without success.
A moment possessed the brave. Things had grown calm, with some of the traders and thugs gone to bed in the rooms above. Coyat’oc’s eyes scanned the room and found it lacking. He tried to listen to the hushed conversations weaving through the tables but knew not the words. At last his patience drowned in drink.
The Fencer sighed as the nomad strutted towards him. Drunkenness made the brave’s movements fluid, like a stork gliding through water. He came to pluck out the Fencer’s heart.
“Good evening,” said the Trumpeter with genuine welcome.
The brave hissed a reply, twisting his face into a demonic mask.
“Your people have a strange way of saying hello,” frowned the musician but he wasn’t heard. Coyat’oc attentions were fixated upon the Fencer, who downed the last of his drink.
It began with a tapping of a spear, right on the Fencer’s boot. The brave then transitioned to rapping the blunt end against the swordsman’s shins, then spilling his drink, all the drinks within reach, until the swordsman was soaked. The tapping continued.
The older brave pulled at the youth’s robe but Coyat’oc snapped, shoving the man across the common room where he hit the bar, scattering glass to the shouts of upset customers. The smiling went on.
The Fencer’s only response was to stare directly into the bothersome creature. Pride demanded he put an end to this affront but he never was good with authority, from within or without.
Acid words spilled from Coyat’oc’s curled lips. He was beyond sneering now. He was knotted with emotion, from blood-want to pride-swell. No fear in those eyes, gleaming.
Other tables took note as the brave’s smile died on his face. This signaled a new dance. He brought his spear to point at the swordsman’s chest. The room murmured in response.
At no point did the Fencer reply in kind. Grey eyes, bland with disinterest, stared back, a sea in which all the nomad’s provocations drowned. Dhala leaned against the wall, untouched.
There was no peace to be had. Fight, and the brave got what he wanted, or what the drink inside him did. Walk away and be forever branded a coward, nearly a death sentence amongst the Winter people. The answer he chose was the answer each being gave the Riddle: a stalemate game with the far horizon.
An old hand gently touched Coyat’oc’s shoulder. A young claw immediately clamped down on the offender. Eyes turned on this new opportunity.
The hand belonged to the elder brave, a man of low station with the silken nomads. He lived for the community’s benefit and the youth saw this.
The peacemaker’s soft words of reason were met with spitting curses. Backing up, the old man frowned. Coyat’oc spear swung to point at a new target. Everything changed.
With words no less soft the elder took up his spear, his face crystallizing into a battle mask. Each line and edge to his pale, weathered face cut from stone. Eyes of old sky.
He let out a low word and motioned outside. The drunk brave’s face brightened into a toothsome smile and he let out a bestial cry.
Nobody, not a single soul of the cosmopolitan trade delegation made to stop the inevitable, and neither did the Fencer or the Trumpeter. At last the swordsman’s uncaring mask broke and he closed his eyes to the frustration for a second. Exiting the door, he had to see.
The dark lawn of snow in front of the blue house held a square of light provided by the open door. Into this the two men stepped while gawkers fanned around like disciples at a temple. The Fencer loitered at the threshold while the Trumpeter dove into the mass of people.
Perhaps the Fencer was expecting something different. These honor duels usually began with feints and posturing, a circling of steps and a gauging of skill. He blinked and then black specks haunted the snow.
Coyat’oc lunged for the heart, the old man nocking the attack to one side. But the boy continued on without his weapon, barreling into the surprised brave, taking him down into the snow. In a flurry of strikes the downed man battered open the youth’s lip.
One struggled to his feet as the other laughed. The boy was possessed, a smile wearing a man. The elder lunged and Coyat’oc flickered away. Turning, the attacker found the youth waiting. With a series of strikes the old man was bloodied, his spear arm pierced and useless. So he took up his club.
The spears of the silken nomads reach over four meters long, made for hunting and making war at a distance. Their clubs were far shorter, about half a meter and the head was notched on one side making a little cup. Of course the old man knew, but he charged anyway. With agonizing certainty Coyat’oc’s weapon pierced his fellow nomad through the chest.
He was dead before hitting the ice. Dark blood painted a negative starscape across pale snow.
Coyat’oc laughed and nudged the body while merchants exchanged bets and Hoxu the cannibal licked his lips.
“You did that,” said one of the patrons, a stern woman in traveler’s wool.
The Fencer scowled at her but more turned his way. Most were amused, not caring why blood was spilled only that it was. Fewer still sensed the tension behind his frozen demeanor and the reason for this blood.
He didn’t try to defend himself as he walked out into the night. Sounds from behind told him the Trumpeter followed. He quickened his pace.
The town’s buildings were quiet and dark now, and they loomed over him like grave markers. Glassy windows full of moonlight watched as he raced out of so-called civilization to the fields beyond. Even as he broke the last line of houses his heart fell.
Grey horizon ran at a distance all around him. The wall. Out here he saw the stars again, but they were bound by that terminus, lacking the full and open expanse which knew only the ice as its frame. His limbs almost trembled with rage.
Yet his eyes found a break in the wall, next to it a pale line. He moved quickly, so did it, freezing for a moment before running along the ironstone backdrop. The Fencer was in the right mood for a race.
With the Trumpeter’s cries following after, the swordsman leaned his whole being into the chase. Closer and closer, he gained ground while the figure kept close to the wall, as if afraid of the city. The Fencer arrived and she fled through a narrow fissure broken through the barrier.
For a moment he saw her, a girl wearing very little, despite the cold. She left a strange, sweet scent and at the gap, so narrow the Fencer couldn’t follow, he discovered numerous blossoms scattered about, of kinds he didn’t know.
“His name was D’douc,” said the nomad leader as around him the camp made strange noise for the passing of their companion. Even the Onulut sang her bright friend back to the Lattice. The Trumpeter accompanied with notes of ice and sorrow.
The Fencer had come back and fought for the body against all the savage traders. The brother returned, there was no sleep in the silken camp that night. Bleary eyes carried the dawn.
“You did nothing, like city folk are trained to do,” added the Had’on, but he didn’t believe those words and neither did the Fencer. “So what time do you want from me now? There is still business and then we go. We are not your friends.”
That last sentence was delayed, an emphatic added for clarity. The chieftain’s natural instinct was to be tactful and accommodating. Out on the wastes it did well to keep friends, even ones you didn’t believe in. There were, however, limits.
“I don’t know,” explained the Fencer, as if it should be obvious. “My reason kept this from greater bloodshed.”
“Ghosts of things which never happened,” replied the nomad waving his hand in disgust.
“Coyat’oc is right out there,” mentioned the swordsman, close to his frustration.
“So he is, having acquitted himself bravely and very much uncharacteristically. Unlike you, he chose action.”
The Fencer fumed against the leader’s stubborn wall.
“It could be the same now. Had I killed Coyat’oc, then might I then be forced to slay D’douc?”
The chieftain knew what he meant, but this truth was too much for the man. He was a creature of tradition and habit, life as ritual despite the loss of magic and gods and the strange spirits. To admit that there was even some brute wisdom in the Fencer’s argument was to walk out over the ice with no care for fissures: inevitably the path would become chaos.
“I hold no grudge,” replied the nomad, placing his lips to his middle two fingers and then raising his hand in what must be a conciliatory gesture.
With that the conversation was over. Outside the band finished mummifying D’douc in silks and pungent chemicals. Coyat’oc with them, singing. Ritual and decorum.
The brave caught sight of the Fencer and his mask of civility fell to the old, terrible smile. His eyes were red with the drink leaving him but in each a core of mad ice burned.
Leaving the camp of the nomads for the last time the two wanderers reentered Jomoth’orr. The Trumpeter was somber, as if the old troubles which had set the two free to wander the whole world had been raised from the dead. Ghosts haunted a few forlorn places and guilty souls while the living haunted each other in droves.
The Jomoth rose before the sun, the men in their coats, the women in their dresses. Children followed, quiet, stifled, wearing miniature versions of their parents’ garb. The women gathered in the central circle and traded bolts of colorful silk, their soft voices fluttering with the wind. Colors fantastic, right out of dream. The men smoked and grumbled and waited.
Then the whole company vanished. Sure there were small jobs to be done, breaks in the ritual as men inspected houses, women chased children, the little chaos of lives. Smoke poured from the chimneys.
When breakfast finished the men reemerged, like colony ants, and marched off with strange weapons to the west, past the town, towards the ironstone mountain. The women followed shortly, making a line to gather the bounty of the dunes, all the rare growth dispersed by the distant jungle. A few remained, the guardsmen with their swords bought from distant lands, a butcher, an old man wandering, a child at play with a huge white insect. At last the Fencer was bored.
From his perch atop the blue house he had seen the people of Jomoth’orr but felt and knew nothing about them. The mind whirred through the past day, the blood and failure. His swordsman genius knew a thousand ways to defeat Coyat’oc but not a single way he could’ve done better in the situation presented. And yet D’douc, a new friend, was dead and there seemed no other finish to the story. Like the dull epics his tribe had told each other in his youth, of uncompromised victory over long lost foes. Fantasy.
The Trumpeter was asleep, the traders too. The Jomoth ruled the day, a thousand worlds apart from the outsiders. Funny, so far there had been no trading between the groups.
Sliding down the roof to annoyed cries from his blue house roommates the swordsman wandered into the middle of the village and its silence. A boy drew water from the cistern behind his house, an old guard knocked and was let into a home by a woman in shadow, the child’s insect clicked and buzzed.
Through this soft murmur of life a regular knocking rose up. Alone at first, then joined by more, the noise sounded like a collection of sharp drum beats.
Following the sound took the Fencer along the western path, one well-worn into hard-packed ice. Over a low rise he saw them at work, hacking away at a huge tree. It seemed like a dismembered corpse, with a long, gradually widening trunk of pale bark. Dozens of smaller limbs, most larger than any tree the Fencer had seen, living at least, were sorted around the titan. Beyond this little valley were others, containing other trees, collections of drying leaves, spider corpses and stranger things, all the bounty of the kill spread out and carefully put to use.
Upon the fallen trunks the men of the Jomoth toiled, coats off, hacking the trees to pieces. Here was the source of the houses, the wealth and riches of the town, their ever-burning fire places and colored silks. They took no mind of the Fencer as he wandered about the crews, finding caches of leaves left out to the sun where they seemed to change shades through the course of dying. The air was pungent with strange sap, wood chips and the volunteer flowers which sprang up from the remains of previous kills.
When was the next expedition, he asked them. To which they replied with a week. It would be difficult to be patient, so the Fencer lent a hand to the men. With each strike of the axe he began to feel better. A week to breathe and think, a week to remember the green-eyed witch, a week more to understand the Riddle, in all its permutations.