Briefly Concerning History

(A preface to a Thalindorian introduction)

Stories are unavoidably made in the image of their maker. Our collective story, ‘history’ certainly is; which is another way of saying that it is equal parts wonderful and terrible, and all parts messy. In fact, many dismiss history as unkempt to the point of meaninglessness, devoid as we are today of all the necessary context (namely, experiencing it first hand) that could give it any truth or bearing on the present. ‘Context’, these hypothetical naysayers say, can only be established subjectively through interpretations of dubious evidence, or by relying on the subjective and fallible records of eyewitnesses. These subjective interpretations and records can be assembled together (at least where they agree) and, together with a selection of surviving artifacts, build a foundation of seeming truth and reality out of which may arise a visage of the past- but upon investigation, we see that that foundation but stands upon another, older one; assumption after assumption all the way down, piled atop one another like crumbling tells. The truth of history, it seems, is based on the truth of history. Is the historian’s problem yet apparent?

This dilemma inherent to the study of history is more pressing than many realize. While we snub the past and chase ‘novelty’ in experience or invention or thought, we turn at times, full of stupefaction, and marvel at how it could be that billions of souls seem caught in the very crux of this ancient, crusted thing of history. Today, numerous contradictory interpretations of history damn one great swathe of humanity or another to a hopelessly dark eternity, while committing select others to ceaseless bliss. In fact, based largely on interpretations of history, I guarantee that to someone somewhere you yourself represent a most grievous evil; and perhaps to another, the highest good; and to many others you are an afterthought with no immediacy, worth less than the device they hold in their hand as they scroll past your social media posts without blinking; worth less, it would seem, than the cat video that gives them pause.

History, story and truth are, after all, siblings. Where sources, information, and vested interests abound (and indeed, they do), the searcher for real truth can sink deep into quagmire. Efforts to escape from it fare even worse. There two (at least) great pitfalls, here; first that despairing of ascertaining truth one might decide that it is an illusion altogether; or second, that despairing of ascertaining truth one might arbitrarily assign it to something, or anything, on a whim or fancy.

Regarding history, however, there is some sort of permanent foothold for the objective rationalist: for there was, of course, exactly one way things *really* happened. That fact cannot itself be proven, yet it is known. Viewed through many perspectives? Of course. Interpret-able in a multiplicity of ways? Indeed. Unknowable, it turns out, in the final calculus? Well, perhaps. Ultimately, however, singular and ruthlessly objective in its reality? Unquestionably. There is really only one narrative, however intricate and lovely it’s countless details, subplots, and characters may be.

Indeed, history is a powerful ally in the hands of the wise- or the ambitious. For the truth-seeker, a promised land of absolutes in the sea of man’s tumultuous subjectivity; for the politician, an infinite faerie realm of manipulative possibility. Beware the past! Nothing can be accepted blindly, even when true, for all story is recounted with an argument; a poniard of perspective. If you cannot see it glinting, held before the tale-teller in his very hands, check behind his back. History is the master teacher, the grand pedagogue; but no less the charismatic dictator. Wielding story, men may lead themselves and other men to greatness- or to deplorable evils; bereft of story, we wander weaponless in a dangerous world.

The Siege of Gidgal

In the ancient west long ago there was an Island. It is the way of islands to rise and fall, growing and shrinking with the tides of the ages; to be discovered, named, and peopled; then deserted, forgotten and unnamed; only to be rediscovered, renamed, and repeopled again. So it was with the Isle called, in those days, Minal. It was unremarkable in size: forty miles from its gentle-sloping shores in the east to the abrupt and treacherously ragged western dropoff, but scarcely ten miles across, at its narrowest, from north to south.

Geographically speaking, Minal was almost the eastern-most outlier of the Great Western Archipelago, called the ‘Wall of Vikun’ (Vikuu Valeske) and the Utuno Dolimath Duari. It lay two hundred miles off the southern coast of the land of Vikun, in that day a thriving nation of fishers, mariners, and traders. Minal was fifty miles west of its nearest sister island and the true end if the Archipelago: the great Forest Island of Fenar, but it was some six hundred miles from the Straights of Gidgal, which lay far south across the Sea of Telcar and the vast Bay of Shiva, where the stars were bent and the incessant winds blow hotly westward.

How the original people of Minal came to live there none now knows, but the first of it’s immigrants were Kozuli refugees of the brutal Shivan conquest of Gidgal (the capital of Kozul), fleeing the sack and rape of that ancient and once-lovely city. The particular refugees that came to live on Minal were thrice-rare: first, in that they had chosen (or had been forced) to stay and weather the long and horrendous siege of Gidgal, which was true of less than half of the city’s people; second, in that they survived the siege up to the point of the breakthrough, true of perhaps just an eighth of those who stayed to endure it; and finally and most tragically, that they alone of the perhaps twenty thousand survivors managed to escape the city alive when at last the terrible siege came to its end.

The siege of Gidgal was the ending stroke of a conflict that had lasted for a hundred years; the Arlhah’c Nule (War of Tears) of the southern lands, in which the grand Shivan Empire was born, the Arahi people nearly utterly destroyed, the Shuko tribes forced into nomadic exile in the Uroduruk Wastes, and the ancient coastal realm of Kozul was wiped out and its people enslaved. These last three peoples formed the Koté Alliance, an unlikely and unpunctual union that unsucessfully attempted to halt the Shivan Golden Age of imperial conquest.

For six and a half years of partial siege Gidgal (and, sheltered behind it to the west, the rest of Kozul) had survived because of the virtue of the city’s location and the marvel of its construction: for it sat fully astride the great god-carven channel through the Gidgal Isthmus that gave the city its name.

When the war turned against the Koté Alliance, when Shuko was destroyed and when the Arahi were no more; when the glistening armies of Shiva covered the earth a million strong, the last of the retreating Kozuli forces broke in through the Shivan picket around Gidgal for the last time. Crossing the channel, they made strong the bulwark of their capital. They long held the Channel Mile-Crossing against numbers ten, twenty, and fifty times their strength, and for ten years the Shivan commanders were content to slowly attrit the Kozuli defenders by degrees and inches.

The manner of the defense was this: the Channel was a hundred feet deep at it’s lowest, and was bolstered by great pillars of rock and hewn stone. Over the channel at it’s narrowest point (still some thousands of feet across) spanned a monstrous bridge, The Span of Gidgal, borne up by massive stone and iron pillars and reinforced by interwoven lengths of strange alloys and feats of engineering lost to time; impossibly long; marvel of the southern world. Both ends of the bridge were terminated in great fortresses; and on the near side where lay the citadel proper stood the Great Wall of Kozul, ninety feet high, thirty-five feet thick, shod with iron and marble, buttressed by battlements and towers high and innumerable, implacably strong.

When, after a decade, the Kozuli’s defenders dwindled and the passage of the channel and loss of the eastern bridgehead was threatened, the Farfortress was razed in retreat and the mighty, priceless bridge was cast down into the gulf in defiance, lost forever; thereafter all the vast lands of Kozul on the Tormand Head became a giant island indeed, apart from the rest of Vehmsii. So began the full-siege of Gidgal, and it was long and terrible.

First came the Years of Assault, in which Shiva attempted to land en masse behind the city to encircle it. The sea-battles off the northern coasts of Tormand are legendary in the history of naval warfare, but the Shivan ships were endlessly replenished while the Kozuli navy diminished. The landing secured and the city fully encircled, the Shivan war-engineers next attempted to break the walls by force during the years of battery, in which great siege engines of both sides traded blows across previously unthinkable distances, with massive stones and missiles hurled across the great gulf. Every time the Shivan invaders concieved and raised up a more massive weapon of previously unsurpassed size and range, the Kozuli would build in secret a greater to outmatch it; and this went on for three years.

In the fourth year of battery and the seventh year of siege, by combination of treachery, machinery, or sorcery, the wall of Gidgal came down at last; the last city of the Koté to fall, the end of freedom in the south, and then there was little hope for any of those who remained alive inside it. By Land and by sea, the Shivan marauders poured into the city; a ravenning horde of death and enslavement, infuriated to madness by having been made to wait.

By some hideous art long prepared, the invaders sent great gouts of flame before them as they advanced; incinerating centuries of lives, gardens, and architecture in a matter of days. A decade of siege had lifted the heights of Chivan sadism still higher than it was normally wont to be, and the Kozuli that were too noble or poor or stupid to flee in the years earlier met grim fates indeed. 160,000 souls had been trapped in the city for the full siege; by the time of the breakthrough their numbers were less than 20,000. Of these perhaps 4,000 were still alive on the third day of the breakthrough, and these remainders were small bands; ragged husks of men and women and, somehow, their terrorized children; gathered into clumps or enclaves that were being extinguished, one by one.

It is the story of one of these enclaves that I wish to tell, of they who would later come to be known as Those that Lived; they who not only weathered the siege but finally escaped it and thier beloved city; drifting ashore to the Isle of Minal like a boat of the damned.

The Stranger, part I

Life affords many opportunities to encounter various types of people. With some very few I feel kinship; with more I feel enmity, but with most I just feel a vague sort of nothing.

There is one man, however, who stands unique in all my acquaintance. He has a name that I have come to learn, but ‘The Stranger’ fits him better. Strange not in the sense of being ‘other’ from me (although, indeed, he is very different from me!) but rather because of his ‘otherness’ when compared to all others; because of that uniqueness from all other men he possesses.

I can’t remember when I first met him, this Stranger, but it was quite a while ago. He had been present as a periphery character for years. Do you know the feeling of having ‘known’ a man for years, without actually really seeing him? It is like that with the Stranger and I. When I finally met him, he had been there all along; that feeling of knowing without knowing had never before been more palpable.

For a time we would pass each other without really making eye contact; furtive glances without meaning or intention. The quick quarter-nod; you know the one: it joins acknowledgment with ambivalence; acceptance and dismissal; both sentiments equally and greedily desired, devoured, and accepted. For a long time I would see him off and on, perhaps once a week or so, yet not altogether too often. We lived, he and I, on that diet of contrary sentiment contained in the quarter-nod. Eventually, however, the frequency of our meetings and passings-by increased.

There is a time of specified length after which continuing to ignore someone becomes comical; or downright painful, if extended much longer. By the time we finally spoke, the Stranger and I had several times stood, side-by-side in silence, far into that painful sort of awkwardness.

I justified it with a number of reasons. For one, he always seemed so busy- not that he was every really doing anything, but his placidity was purposeful. He was impatiently motionless. That sense of restlessness affords one a certain space that even awkward silence cannot wholly eliminate.

Second was that vaguely uninterested look; you know the one; it says “I’m capable enough and willing to engage you…” but simultaneously warns those who would adventure such an engagement that it will probably end in condescension. Not enough patronization to offend, course, but just enough to firmly preclude a second attempt at conversation.

The third and my favorite reason is that we used to only bump into each other when there were so many others around. If there is a person you wish to avoid (not that this Stranger was such a man) it is far easier for both of you when there is a great crowd of others to run interference on your behalf. A changed subject, a re-directed glance, a timely interruption; all of these tools are on the table when there is a crowd. Without a crowd hostility is far harder to mask. Only indifference is more so.

The fourth reason was that we ran into each other so infrequently; but as I said before that rationale had begun to deteriorate: I started to run into him often. Not that he ever followed me, or I him; or that we seemed to have similar routines; it was the very same sorts of meetings we previously had, just more of them. At the bar, on my afternoon run, bumping shoulders at the grocery store. It was as if the fate-driven mechanism that was orchestrating our meetings was suddenly fed too much fuel or kicked into overdrive. The mechanism, or it’s driver, was behind schedule; he had run out of patience with my powers of rationalization and avoidance.

The corollary to to seeing each other more frequently was that we began running into each other alone. Not strictly “alone” in the truest sense of the word; there would always be another present. But they would be down the hall, or at the other end of the platform, or further down the street. There is an intense loneliness in being almost (but not quite completely) alone; a loneliness greater than that of a large crowd (and much greater than true isolation) comes from being physically near to a smallish number of other lonely people.

Even with our mutual brusque and disinterest, one day it suddenly became clear to me that we were ‘seeing’ each other as we passed. Of course I mean ‘seeing’ is the weakest sense of the word, but even that kind of ‘seeing’ is quite different and far stronger than ‘passing’. I’m sure you understand, and if you do, then you will also understand the death-stroke that this sense of awareness dealt to my feigned ignorance and pattern of avoidance. Indeed my isolation from the man was riven to the heart, and the short remainder of my avoidance of the man was just boring, inevitable blood loss.

It was the simplest things, the ‘seeing’: a raised eyebrow or that extra tenth of a second of eye contact, the quizzical question mark at the end of the quarter-nod that ruins it’s insualrity completely; those vague nothings that change everything. I’m struck now by the sense that I may be misunderstood- does it sound to you like I’m describing a budding romance? If so I’m torn- torn between a dismissively embarrassed laugh and between telling you that you’re seeing truly. Perhaps what I mean to say is this: if you think that, in a non-romantic context, a person can’t have the same sort of gradual awareness of deep connection and incipient intimacy with another person as he would in a romantic context- well then all that you and your lack of introspection deserve is a laugh, and a handwave.

Anyway that’s how it was, that slowly dawning realization that can’t be perceived while it’s happening. Eventually the silences became unbearable and started to feel silly, which is how it goes most times. The nature of the equation became different; the inequality inexorably turned. It wasn’t abrupt, our first conversation, you know; not like a paragraph-type conversation right off the bat. But I cracked first. And damn him if he ever, ever let me forget that in that knowing, silent way he had about him.

I made some comment about the weather, and that was all. He flashed me that blank face, you know, that kind of feigned surprise that wants to ask (“are you talking to me?”); but he knew, that bastard, and he was expecting it, I’m certain. Even he, though, couldn’t give the implied question voice, for this was one of those one-on-one, alone-but-not-quite sorts of meetings. We were standing on the platform, minding the gap, waiting for the express. There were a couple others (vague-nothing types of others) on the platform, and they’d get on, and he and I would get on, and then he’d get off at the third exit; and I, the fourth. Our well-known routine of intimate indifference.

Given what eventually followed from that first conversation, I’m plagued with wondering why I didn’t just walk away from the Stranger, since standing there beside him made me so potently uncomfortable. But of course, I only wonder that because the visceral reality of the moment itself is gone. Like an artlessly accurate photograph, memory can resurrect a spectre of a scene, but the blood-price is the essence, the soul; the timestamp of the very moment- lost forever.

***

I am given to fits of hindsight, regret and redoubt circling over my mind at times with their black wings. Ah, hindsight and foresight, those pompous luxuries! Enjoyed at their own risk, those speculative monsters, ravenously betting on a deadly game from the grandstands! They observe the arena, that sneer of disdain and mild discomfort on their face, berating and goading the contestants from a perspective both biased and uninformed. The sand and grit far below are seasoned with the sweat of the Champion: Discernment. Only he does grim battle with that beast named the Present, and they grapple and snarl, and strike with fist and claw; and the air between them is teeth and dust and steel.

Scarlet drips from those combatants in a hundred places; swift death waits in every distraction. Yes, the ears of that champion have long been closed to the frothing, idiotic howl of the luxuriant monsters in the stands. Hindsight and foresight, the fattened carrion-birds atop the carcasses of the victorious and the fallen.

***

Anyway, the weather was how I breached it with him. I don’t remember if the weather was good or bad, but it was a stupid thing to mention either way. We were underground. I think he let me know that too, in that half-second blankness before he answered. I don’t remember his answer. Honestly, I don’t remember much of anything the Stranger ever said to me; it was always in the way he said things, the feel of his words. It was the pictures he would generate in my mind, the question mark in the emptiness just behind my eyes; but the edges and detail of those images are long gone and only the phantoms of elation and despair are left, like the ethereal memories of a delicacy’s flavor.

That first conversation consisted of my remark about the weather, and his reply, at that was the end of it. But oh, the relief of that conversation! It was good, so very good to divulge that terrible secret: the secret that we saw each other. I quietly relished the goodness of our shared understanding: we existed; and the unquiet of unknowing was past. I had initiated, and he had responded. But after that initial exchange he was silent. The conversation was over, and there was the Stranger still standing there, unmoved. Unchanged. Now that he existed, He was content to just go on existing.

There is an agony that hides from the bearer by growing so slowly in the mind that it is only perceived when it reaches it’s apex and not a moment before. Well, in that moment I knew that agony; it stared me in the face there, two feet away, without looking at me. It emanated from him like a black aura, a hateful aura, an aura that hated me and that I hated in return without pity or reservation. You’d never know it, looking at him, with that smug reserve, that ineffable calm.

Moments after our ‘conversation’ ended he suddenly looked back at me. It was a shot across the bow: he looked at me for just a hairsbreadth too long; the corner of his mouth curved upward just a micron; always in inches and increments; that was the way of him; but for him an inch moved a mountain. From him a smirk was an open-handed slap, resounding quietly in the empty subway.

He looked away after that eternity of an instant, and I remember that the track groaned a mile away as the train came on at fifty-five miles an hour, and he and I had sixty-five and a half seconds of steadily diminishing silence. It was a blazing, desperate, writhing silence; the sound a star makes as it crosses the event horizon; a tearing, ripping, anguishing silence. The Stranger shouted that silence at me with all of his vulgar monotony.

At last, the track before us wracked and the hissing squeal of pneumatic brakes announced the arrival and salvation of the train. The door opened, and we got in. I got in. He got in. The nothings got in. I felt the closeness of the subway car like a weight. It seemed like a reverberation chamber for the Stranger’s silence.

I stood at the back of the car and held the smoothly polished rail and felt the reassuring pleasure of my fingertips just barely touching one another around it’s cool, perfect circumference. The feeling flooded me with confidence. I sighed, audibly. The silence of the Stranger quieted. I looked up to meet his eyes with a strong glance and, perhaps even a bracing joke.

But the Stranger was already smiling. He was laughing light-heartedly- with a passenger, with a nothing. He gestured and he shrugged. He leaned in, smiled warmly, and he chuckled! The vague nothing with whom he spoke was enraptured; a child giddy with joy and amusement as the Stranger regaled them with tales of the unknown realm- glimpses into the depths of his Reality; escorted into the faerie world of his higher existence by his effortless authenticity and charm. The juxtaposition of the Stranger and this nothing was made into a concrete thing in this side-by-sde comparison; it was as undeniable as the heigh difference between them; the Stranger condesceing to lean physically down to mee the eye, dialectically adjusting his well-mannered accent to suit the rough nothing’s impediment, widening his smile to embrace the innocent grin of his conversant.

I was desperate for their conversation to end. Minutes passed. The talk was tapering off. The nothing nodded and half-turned away. I started to breathe. Just as it was ending, suddenly the Stranger prodded the nothing with a question! Oh, the way their eyes lit up at that question! Up rose the tempo of conversation again, now with the nothing talking jovially of family, occupation, something, nothing. We came to the first stop. The noise of them talking went on. So did the train. More minutes passed in this way; the nothing stumbling, truncating; the Stranger stooping with a smile and a outstretched hand, prolonging the dialogue.

At last the second stop was called, and as the train slowed the conversation of the nothing and the Stranger drew at last down to an amicable close. With profanely obvious reluctance, the nothing gathered drab possessions, walked through the door, looked back at the Stranger one more time, and stepped onto the platform. As they did, the stranger leaned out through the doorway and called with a smile and newfound, almost comic familiarity.

“See you tomorrow!” The nothing turned back and smiled a huge, stupid grin, all of teeth and guffaw; then the doors closed and they were left behind as the train lurched away.

For an instant I know that my surprise, my fury got the better of me; I stopped processing information just long enough to miss the Stranger glancing back at me for a nanosecond with what I am positive was a smirk on his face; but by the time I realized it and looked up he was staring off into the deep of the tunnel, an implacable fortress again but with a twinge of satisfied superiority.

It was too much to stand, in that moment, his affability with that vague-nothing person. I was dying, mentally; the furnace of my mind just churning with rage. That incredulous betrayal! An unmovable wall of poise and unapproachable dignity? The gall of this poseur; this charlatan! And where did he spend his beguile, his charis? On the nothing? The waste made me dizzy with anger and fear.

Now was all my silence, my awkwardness, my stunted try of conversation shown for its reality: a tattered imitation; a fool’s blunder, an example of failure so abysmal that even ridicule soars above it. There in the cramped coach he stabbed me with that same silence as before, only now I knew what it was: it was his roaring laughter, pouring forth, bubbling over, filling all the subway car till it bulged and its rivets groaned, drowning out the clack of the track; he laughed at me as inaudibly as the rising of the sun; laughed at my smallness, tormented me in my inadequacy.

I couldn’t bear to look at him. I nearly convulsively covered my ears. With an effort I gathered my senses together and heard my station called. I lurched forward with a jerk and left the train without looking back; with my back turned I could imagine his mouth contorted now in a twisted grin, eyes wide in laughter; but I knew that if I looked back I would only see that same stolid face. I put one foot in front of the other. I crossed the gap and felt the juxtaposition of the solid concrete and the vibrating coach floor.

On the solid ground my confidence ratcheted quickly skyward. Half intentionally, half compulsively, I spun to glance at the Stranger still sitting in the train- but now I couldn’t find him. I searched left and right for seconds; how could he have vanished? I begin to check another car when that terror laid hold of me: How long did I stand on that platform, searching the train windows like a child, looking for this man; and surely he was watching me unseen from another car with that damnable smile…! Rage wrenched me away from the train just before it left the station.

Humiliation-flushed, I stalked from the platform. One pillar passed by my left ear. WHOOMPH. Another. I wasn’t really standing there that long. Another Pillar. I passed them so closely that the rush of them sweeping past me was a howl in my ears, my oxfords clapping the ground at a regular rythymn. Shame crested like a thought-flood, and I imbibed the sounds like a drug; WHOOMPH, Clomp, clomp, clomp, WHOOMPH. He wasn’t there; he must have switched cars. Whoomph. He wasn’t thinking about me. Whoomph, clomp, clomp, clomp. My heart sank slowly from my throat.

The pillars were long gone by the time I hit the steps, leaving the subway station behind and crossing the street.

Expectations

I sat near the back- a small thing, waiting under the eaves, waiting for something. A spark perhaps, a touch of the divine, a piercing note, clarion-clear. A swift time rolled past, a known time with expectations, a good time or a great time, a time with meta-narratives stacked high, towering, shifting, dancing. Piles of expectation. Meta-narratives pull at the souls of those that build them, and those who see them, with a gravity that becomes almost unbearable as their heights grow upwards. Those not in the know seem at ever greater risk to miss the whole thing, the larger it is.

Oh, when it goes they will be assured that they missed it- unless it bowls them over as it rushes past with the blast of it’s wind, or they experience a taste of the foundation of the narrative for themselves. Hype and taste are easily muddled, and difficult to extricate.

It is a funny thing that I make things harder to grasp the firmer and straighter I try to put them; once missed initially I struggle to elaborate the truth into clarity. Trying to make it easier to see, I adorn it with description and dressings-up until the thing in itself is utterly hidden. I chain truth to the ground with my knowledge; I bludgeon the truth with language, then box it with endless clarification until it is a thing unrecognizable. I usually claim victory, then. It gives me a violent rush, this battery of the truth.

But a thing so ephemeral and lovely as the truth can’t endure under beatings; live in a cage of expectation and piled narrative, called out to dance the tunes you’ve taught it to dance- the thing is wild. A subject of such rare beauty that to capture it is to defile it- but then, neither can it possess such striking beauty and forever escape the piling on of hopes and expectations- the entropy of communication and gatherings- the capture and the killing.

Oh, to feel the truth flitting by us, to watch it pound across the fields unharnessed; to dive, headfirst, into the rushing, terrible cataract of the truth! Someday.

Sometimes I am drawn with morbidity to analyze the tipping point of a good thing, groaning silently under the weight of it’s own goodness- you can see it on the faces, strained and stretched; they give their own tendons to birth the thing with all of it’s expectation, the weight of it pulling things tighter. You can hear it in the inflection of sentences that are lobbed prematurely, like grenades into a foxhole without challenge. You can feel it in a smile on a stranger’s face; pretense dangling on a thread.

It disturbs me, my propensity towards observation (as opposed to engagement). Perhaps in interacting with the thing and choosing to overlook the towering structure of expectation (as opposed to making comments), I myself could actually change the thing. I wonder whether most of those who engage without pause are even aware of the dizzying narrative, or if they simply engage with the thing because it is there, enjoying the thing itself in a state of blissful, ignorant joy.

If that is what Christ means when he says to become like a little child, then I am indeed a millstone-bearing monster of an adult. I have seen and tasted where I ought not have done- I rang the bell, ate the apple, claimed the ring, lay down with the dragon. And, in my shame, doubtless have led or allowed others to do the same. There is a tearing in my heart, a terrible need for Christ to remove this wisdom altogether, with all of its seeping scars and soreness- even as he molds and applies it in the defense and warning of others. But I am a shattered, wounded thing. You said you would not break me, Lord, but my fibers are warped and cracked in the wind that is blowing, and little of worth remains in the center.

Voxae the Mariner: Part II

Link to Part I

As I mentioned earlier, Voxae left the halls of the masters when he was seven (which was rather younger than the typical age of 10) in order to return with his father and mother to the East. He was enchanted already with the fire and passion of the Eastshores, land if the burning sunrise; though for a time that desire would lay beneath rather than atop the surface of his heart. Upon reaching the age of 13, Voxae announced to his father that the time for his Vilusa had come, and his father did not restrain him. Even though the Vilusa did not typically begin until the age of 20 (and for some even later), it was not a thing delayed or restrained by the fathers of the Aerni, and so to prevent or forbid Voxae from beginning his journey, even in his extreme youth, would have been a thing unheard of.

So Voxae left, more or less with his family’s blessing, and made his way swiftly and restlessly westward across the forests of Vhem, reaching and climbing the Haltassa (‘Great Table’; later the Deeprun Plateau). The sisu of Aern was hot in his heart and drove him on almost in a sort of fury, so that his mind and feet were sure and he rarely rested long in one place, even though the distances he covered with each leg of his journey were vast beyond the endurance of older men.

It was high in the passes of the Haltassa that Voxae first encountered the great jackal Onowaetha, and its obsidian eyes stalked him for six months waiting for him to tire, that it might devour him. But Voxae was tireless and fearless, and he evaded the Jackal many times so that at last the great Jackal itself became tired. One night as it slept exhausted, Voxae crept silently up and caught Onowaetha by the tail. Onowaetha awoke then and could not escape Voxae; and at length he relented. Now Onowaetha was ancient and very wise, and knew the stories and guise and language of many birds and beasts and men, and he tested Voxae with many tricks, riddles and proverbs of escape and elusiveness, but all of these Voxae resisted and answered, and finally Onowaetha was mastered.

From that day forward Onowaetha journeyed with Voxae. At times he would give him counsel or warnings, though Voxae was rarely quick to listen, preferring rather to follow his own desires and thoughts. One day it came to Voxae that he wished to learn the ways of the northwestern coastlands, so Onowaetha led him him up the Firehalen (Stairs of the North) to the frostbitten shores of Karche. Voxae lived with the Frostlords for two years; he fished in the ice-holes and hunted the great frost-wyrms and the terrible ivory bears of the north, and from the warlords of Karche he learned the sword and the spear, to beat an armed opponent when barehanded, and to calm oneself in the frozen, bitter wastes of the world; and in all these things the fiery spirit of Aern helped him greatly so that the Karchan Lords marveled at the southern man’s fortitude. But at the end of two years Voxae tired of the cold and the north, and he bade farewell to the lords of Karche, desiring instead to see the great subterranean fires of the Red Tuar.

So Onowaetha took him far south to the northern slopes of the Suroceshti (the Greypeaks), and led him through cavern and grotto to the very entrance of Sakhriathol, City of Fire, Mighty citadel of the Red Tuar. And the Jeweled Kings of the Greypeaks received Voxae and led him down, down to the hearts of the mountains, and there he saw the great smithies and fires of the Red Tuar, where molten steel and adamant ran hot and red like the waters, and great steams and smokes moved the engines of the earth. And he stayed with the Mountain Kings for three years, and he grew in craft and strength, and his eyes and mind were attuned to the deep places of the world so that he ever saw in shades of dimlight where other men might see only blackness; and from the Red Tuar he first learned of the terrible fire-mountains across the Eastern sea, in whose fearsome hearts it was said that deepsteel could be forged.

But at length he tired of the deeps, and so he left the Kings of the Mountains desiring instead to to see the Eastern edge of the North, and after long journey he came to the southern Ciryashar, the Ice Teeth and gnashing floes of the northern world. And seeing these terrible ivory obstacles looming up before him, Voxae burned with desire to enter the frozen ice to see the lost Grey Tuar; so Onowaetha led him sure-footedly across the great trackless spires, and there Onowaetha and Voxae together dared perhaps the greatest of all the dangers of the Western World, second only to the vast gaping desert-waste of Arahi in the far south. But the wisdom of Onowaetha and the great burning or Aern could not be conquered, and finally the two intrepid adventurers passed through the frigid Teeth and knocked upon the icy gates of Sorac, the last fortress-home of the forgotten Grey Tuar.

There Voxae stayed three years, for he was grown great beyond the pale of men in strength and knowledge, and he was become a master of cold and fire, sword and hand, speech and lordship. There in the forlorn northern seas he wrought many great works under the dominion and grace of the mist-like Grey Tuar; and here he learned of the second realm and of the spirits, and of the great evil that terrorized that plane, and how to recognize the ancients by name and perception. He delved the ice and built mighty towers and walls and great rafts against which the glaciers cracked and melted; and the Grey Tuar showed him terrible artifacts of the Tuar wars and their many battles with the Devourer and his servants. And at the fullness of his might he wrought from the ever-ice crystals of the north and the rubies of the Red Tuar the legendary Raxecirye Qualcerne (the Ice-gem of Blazing Fire) that is also called the Ciryacerne (Iceflame), which never melted and brought warmth and cold to it’s bearer as desired.

This great effort consumed Voxae for nearly two years, and when it was complete the Grey Tuar were aghast and even alarmed with the beauty and subtly of the artifice of this man, unheard-of, and unlooked-for. But when the great Gem was complete and three years with the Grey Tuar were ended, Voxae grew tired of the Icy Sea, desiring at last to return to the warm south and to seek mastery of still greater things. And Onowaetha was with him as he again journeyed south, and they were nearing the great inland waters of Keadsili (that is, the Eyelakes) when suddenly they were waylaid by a company of Black Tuar, coming in many hundreds from a recent raid, and Voxae was overmastered and taken deep into the dungeons of Zukazalir, below the Silver Mountains that rise above the Keadsili. There they daunted him for days, seeking to wrest from him the secrets of the Ciryacerne, but he would not divulge a word to them even under torment of pain, and despair near to death.

Even as he cried in his last anguish, and his eyes dimmed and his end seemed close around him, Onowaetha stole silently into the heart of the fortress, and slewing the guards he came upon the Ciryacerne and swallowed it, and finding Voxae at last he rescued him, suffering many wounds in the doing, and devouring many of the Tuar he led the weakened man finally to the surface and the shores of the Keasili; but he did not tell Voxae he had devoured the great gem.

When they had journeyed for almost a day and again reached near to the shores of the greatest of the Keadsili (called Kedir Gorgon, Greateye), Onowaetha knew that death was come upon him. Now Voxae was recovering from his wounds but bitterly mourning the loss of the Ciryacerne, and did not know that Onowaetha had devoured it to save it. Onowaetha then revealed to Voxae that he had devoured it, and that even now the Iceflame was sustaining his spirit though his body was dying. And he gave Voxae then a terrible choice: to abandon the Ciryacerne, restoring Onowaetha to life, although there was no certainty for how long; or to reclaim the gem and surrender Onowaetha to death, allowing his spirit to depart the world forever.

Now Voxae loved Onowaetha, but he loved the Ciryacerne even more. And he lied to Onowaetha and said “I relinquish the jewel!” But even as he did Onowaetha perceived his heart, and he spoke and said “No, Voxae, for you have decided. Indeed did I myself decide this when I submitted myself to you on the Great Table seven years ago. Take back what is yours, and I shall depart.” And Onowaetha’s spirit departed from his body, and lo, there was the Ciryacerne in the Jackal’s mouth. But when Voxae laid his hand upon it, the Jackal bit his hand and would not release it. And the spirit of Onowaetha spoke to Voxae and said “As it was fated, so it has happened. And this artifact is now bound to you as is this wound; that on the day you lose it you shall lose your very life; and it alone shall stop this wound from spelling your death.” And Voxae prized apart the laws of his friend, and taking the Ciryacerne, he arose and left that place- but despite his efforts to staunch it, his hand bled freely so that he thought he would soon surely die of it.

Indeed, before the sun set on the day after Onowaetha’s death, Voxae swooned as he strode and fell face first as one dead, upon the earthy shores of The Greateye.

Voxae the Mariner: Part I

Long ago in the time of the Guardians, before men had yet set foot upon the eastern shores or the Great Mouth was unmasked, there lived a man called Voxae. Voxae was a farmer of the lands in the very furthest east of the known world; that is on the Eastshores of the Great Inland Sea. In an short and unbroken line of the firstborn, Voxae could (and did) trace his ancestry right down through the ages to Aern (that is, The Flmae), youngest daughter of Atema, the first of all men. He therefore belonged to those people who have gone down in the histories as the Aernori; the Men of the Flame, and his father one of their mightiest princes.

Now of the eldest sires of men little is known (and less is told), but surely it has become demonstratively clear that of the gifts given them by the guardians the people of Aern were surpassingly blessed with courage, indomitable spirit and a fierce determination; less, with great patience, or caution.

All of this shall become clearer as we continue, but somewhat of Voxae’s exposition should perhaps be known before we begin his tale (which is rather long and is retold here only with great abbreviation) in earnest. In those days men lived long; many lives of their lesser kindred that live on to this day, at least; the longer time in which they might grow acquainted with a world in which they were still some of the shortest-lived and youngest of the many other races. Less in stature than the Gii of the mountains; less in mind and subtlety than the Kentari; slower and less nimble than the Llito; weaker than the Tuar; and bereft of all but the very barest of glimpses and perception of the second realm of the Thari (the Spirits) and Faeiir (the Wild Things); the question could be (and was) fairly asked of them, living as they were amongst so august and halcyon a company of other peoples: what use were they able to make of their short lives, however long they would be judged by the standards of today?

It is a question that all the more may be asked of those who now follow, all these long years later- we who trouble the earth for a far shorter duration, and that with greatly reduced potency than our sires, the mighty men of elder days.

But we have now come a long way now from the life of Voxae the Mariner.

As I said earlier, Voxae was a man of the Aern, a farmer of eighty years, who had for the last sixty of which dwelt in the Eastshores near the Great Inland Sea (as it was then called) which is now called Nulset, the Sea of Tears. The first seven of his years were spent in West Vhemsii under the tutelage of Albe the master and all of his various understudies (in this way his childhood was similar to that of all of the Aerni). After the completion of these formative years his father Vorxes had returned with his wife and son into the east. Since they day Voxae returned to Eastshore with his father (who was a man in his prime, of some hundred and fifty years) he had left the hills of the great Sea only once at the age of 13, but he was gone long, and returned at the age of 30 a marked and married man, with a strange name, bearing strange gifts and burdens, and wedded to a strange bride: Noetlin Keadine.

Noetlin was not of Aern but rather of Kead the Eye, eldest son of Okri, the second man. Kead fathered the Kediir, the Men of Sight, perhaps the greatest juxtaposition possible for the impulsive and fiery Aerni: stern of glance and slow to act (but unflinching once underway), Kead and his offspring leaned much from the great seer spirit Mira, Handmaiden to the Empath and wife of Okri, and were farsighted and wise beyond all men that were or shall ever come again. Noetlin was eldest daughter to the chief of the Kediir, Asu, and the sisu (that is, the spirit-essence and enduring identity) of Mira was strong in her heart and her being.

Now it was the way of things in those days for Aernorii men, after learning for some years at the feet of his father and other teachers, to leave the place of his family and to enter the wilderness for some time to commune with the spirits and the gods, and returning, to seek a bride and his place in the world. So it came to pass that when Voxae was 13 he tired of his instruction at the hand of his father and resolved to leave the east, venturing vaguely west and north on the Vilusa or ‘Voyage’ as it was then called, to find what adventures and destiny might await him.

Now the Guardians had appointed to each tribe a region over which they had dominion (and within which they were to stay) with wide open lands in between. The Guardians had also at that time already made forbidden the crossing of the Great Sea that would later be called Nulset and Setilolath (Sea of Darkness) and many other names, but in these days in the Sortr is was first called the Qualcerne (bursting fire) and the Essoligdhe, that is, the Rising Light or Sunrise, for the first Aerni explorers of that region came upon that great and terrible water just as the light of Dawn reached the breaking point over the flat east horizon.

The sun burst in that day over the sea with the force and terrible beauty of a red, fiery explosion. This light it is said kindled something deep and dormant in the hearts of these sons of fire, children of Aern the flame, and they did not forget, being drawn eastward and indeed ‘flameward’. Voxae was one of these, who even in the hearing of that great exploration and later in coming to dwell in the very foothills of the sea was kindled and ever smoldered with the passion and fire for the sea and for the East.

But I am running ahead of my story, again.

Link to part II

Rupik the Pitiless: Part I

In the Jadewood on the Deeprun lived an outlaw known as Rupick. He was cold and he was vile; he was seldom seen by men. In his youth now long ago he was a fisher’s boy in Dradik; by age of twelve the boy had crossed the sea and back again.

When he was scarce fifteen he took a lover in the city, though little could he offer her of marriage, bliss or life. So he left her there in Dradik and he sailed the seas a deckhand; what little coin he made he saved to make the girl his wife.

Off the dreadful shoals of Wairk did Rupik learn the ways of water, and sailed he clear to Narne with ladened cargo bay to sell. He dove for pearls and rockfish in the coves of craggy Tartar, and learned he every yarn and tale that mariner would tell.

He journeyed far and deep, and grew from deckhand up to bosun; by age of twenty Rupik had the charge of twenty men. His eyes were fierce and dark; his voice would echo like a cannon; He led his crew and cargo safe through every wreck and fen.

Once when his ship was moored upon the coast of wooded Fenar, a caravel of raiders swept around the horn at speed. His crew was full ashore when Rupik spied the pirate schooner; no hope of any help had he, though desperate was his need.

Swiftly came the warship on to swarm the Dradii freighter, the gnarled and fetid captain standing rashly in her prow; but swifter still assayed the thought of Rupik, master-sailor, and “anything but capture, even death!” did he avow.

The People of Veris: The Stromgk

The Stromgk (sortr. ‘Oldest’) awoke first in the deep years, before the wars of the guardians, first of the Peoples of Veris and without parallel. While they were unlike the gods and the spirits, being bound to the physical sphere and shape of Veris, still their hearts burned brightly and deep in the second realm, and their thought reached far. The Stromgk looked first on the empty darkness of Veris when the earth was young and hot, and for a thousand years they held counsel with the earth, the guardians, the stars, and the spirits. Out of their deepening knowledge they brought forth the greatest and loveliest creations and artifacts of the ancient age, and their like shall not be seen again. They made physical the deep realities of the universe; great works of beauty and understanding and power that clarified and amplified the very nature of What Is.

When the wars of the guardians began and the earth was assailed by chaos they were its great defenders, and when the tumult of those days finally abated it was to the Stromgk appointed the shepherding of the fledgling young peoples that then awoke. Thus the Stromgk, never numerous nor dominion-seeking, became the benevolent sages, godlike artificers, and rarefied lords of a primeval age.

These shepherded, following peoples were indeed prolific, and some if not all indeed did seek dominion. None of these after-comers had even one part in five of the mastery and insight of the Stromk, but they were comparatively blunt, stunted, and impotent. As the centuries and peoples multiplied, as these younger and more prolific races imitated and learned from the Stromga, and as the lesser peoples ascended inexorably to prominence until they filled up seemingly all the earth, the spirits of the ageless Stromga sank ever lower. Not from envy or pride, but in despair: for they saw that all things forever were but a diminishing echo and reverberation of greater things past, and they foresaw in these followers the doom and ignominy to come.

For while even an echo of a mastersong retains its fading beauty unsullied, the Stromgk endured instead the endless replaying and clumsy adaptations of the unskilled, decade after decade in every science and art form, as mortality and nature capped and atrophied the ability and progress of every individual and race. This terrible progression became a drudgery and eventually a torture to the aesthete Stromgk, watching each generation growing less and less like the original lesson, growing diminished and crude and base, until the beauty and purity of life was garbled beyond memory and recovery even by the most masterful, learned, and long-lived of the lesser races.

The world around them was filled to the brim with mediocrity and worse, for under the surface it seethed with strife, malice, and suffering; most of all it teemed with the waste and vainglorious arrogance of youth.

It is a curious matter indeed that the Stromgk, in all of their ancient glory and voracious passion for understanding and beauty, were tasked by the gods with the shepherding of such unlovely and clumsy peoples. What unrecorded conversance have the Stromgk made with gods and spirits over the fathomless days of the first age of the earth? In what bitterness have they sought relief from this burden? Who in Veris can conceive of the agony of immortal perfection in an age of endlessly declining repetition? And of course, who now can answer for the Stromgk- fallen and changed as they are- and exiled?

In the ages that followed, what happened- with a pace so glacial that it went unnoticed by the dying peoples- is that the counsel of the Stromgk grew cryptic and withdrawn. Pace by pace, year by year, they retreated into silence, insularity and isolation. The doors of their high places opened to fewer, and then rarely, and finally not at all. Over a millennium the Stromgk passed in stages into the ether of legend until the mortal races, never overly patient with these shepherds even in the best of times, came at last to neglect them utterly, altogether.

And so it was that when the Wars of Darkness came like at last like a storm; when the need of the shepherdless peoples was dire; when death and evil were full grown and when at last the mightiest of them in desperation searched and sent and reached the great citadels of the Stromgk, they found the gates standing open and the great halls deserted. The Stromgk had vanished. In the end, it seems, they proved unable to endure so agonizing a purpose.

While even the legendary and mythic embellishments of the final days of the Stromgk are now themselves many thousands of years old, and the precise nature and account of their departure will never be known to mortals, the ancient tales and legends coalesce around a theme; a theme in which there is, perhaps, some element of truth: that there came a day at last when the greatest among the Stromgk used all of their might and their unsurpassed learning toward a singular, terrible objective; an attempt to escape forever the monotony of their eternity; an attempt to make one truly new thing, a great thing; a terrible thing. And so in one hand they took the masterpiece that was themselves, and in the other hand they wielded the fullness of their ability and art; and finally in some mad ambition and desperation they stole the right of the gods, and brought both hands together with it, to make craft of their very essence and being- to change it forever, to augment it with the gifts and natures of the other creatures and natural forces of the earth.

No greater thing has ever been attempted (nor indeed may ever be again) in all of the history of Veris- and none more disastrous.

For the attempt succeeded, after a fashion, and the Stromgk were indeed changed forever- but not in the way they intended.

Creativity

I stare at the page, blank like a one-line epitaph.
I charge my mind with creation, I drive him forth with a purposeful stride;
I send him out to search each corner of my ability
but a great nothing beats back his foray in silent derision.

Now my lack of capability spreads out before me, a great featureless desert.
Cornerless.
Here and there a few coarse growths break the monotony,
but they are just a mockery of pattern, to a self searching for distinguishing landmarks.

Identified for production, the great factory is idle.
Great piles of raw material stack in towering piles against dormant machinery
the operators of which lay mumbling in their sleep,
sprawled upon the dirty factory floor, writhing, troubled by dark dreams.
The trucks, empty, queued up at the shipping doors,
are beginning to leave.

The Lay of Ember Earthenhold

from The Pages of Erise, “Collected Poetry of the North”

The snow fell deep on dark Northold,
the day was damp, the night was cold
when softly marched the host untold,
coming from the Northern-wold.

Her rooftops whitened swiftly now
that autumn’s death was final-
how the flakes of silky whiteness plowed
the fields of that forsaken town.

It crested on a hilltop round
The clustered buildings on the ground
Trembled softly with the sound
Of marching, marching, underground.

For long lay waiting forces strong
here tromping now in horrid throng
those under-men that fortune wronged
had waited, waited, waited long,

With hatred forced to lands unkind
The under men grew coarse and blind
now ravaged south in hope to find
somewhere new their caves to wind.

They come! They come, with fire and drum
They come with tune and flute and hum
They come with death and terror wrung,
They come with darkness ‘bout them hung.

For seeing not their souls yet burn
With fire bright and pain unearned
As slowly they the tunnels spurned
And towards the hated surface turned.

To come in wrath and just accord they
Struck with skill at northern hoards and
Stomped they over kings deplored with
wrath of passion then un-stored

Twas on that day, the fifth December
When the under-men met Ember
Those that stood that night remembered
Evermore his words un-tender.

Slow began his song of woe,
As softly notes began to grow
The under-city’s torches glow
Went out like matches on the snow.

Crescendo building every second
Ember’s voice now quickly beckoned-
Soldiers sprung from fen and bracken
stalks revealing branches weaponed.

Terrible his voice now rising
Upwards flew he, greatness sizing
Giant’s limbs now enterprising
Forth from Ember’s form despising

Trembling notes rocked earth as nature
Buckled ‘neath the weight of stature
As an arm reached out, a fracture

Leapt from Ember’s feet; his aim sure
Tearing soul from body dying
Echoed screams displaced the crying
voice as one from heaven scrying

melody still amplifying
Reaching sounds as yet unfathomed
Darkness fled for fear of chasmed
fire leaping from phantasmal visage-

Ember’s height then spasmed
Echoed ringing still was heard
Though Ember now spoke not a word
As slowly passed away the herd

Of soldiers sprung from moss and fern
Great fissures healed upon the earth
The singer’s form now shrank and birthed
A man of common form and girth

He stood and righted self with mirth
A smile on his youthful face
Contrasted chaos in his wake
As strode he from that fateful place

where hero sang with frightful grace
So many years from then is told
The story of the Emberscold
When earth rose up and swallowed whole

The marching men of Underfold
And though the people never knew
The whereabouts of hero true
It often was remarked by youth

That hills and forests sang anew
The songs of Ember Earthenhold
The hero of the northern-wold
The man of smile and laughter bold

But terror sharp, and anger cold.