Part 6 - the Surrachi Plains
Hadia spent most of her time on horseback, ahead of the snaking column and sat away from the others when they broke camp The second day she caught some hares, which made for a welcome change in their diet, which until then had mostly comprised of dried foods. They’d been grateful for that, though she’d shrugged off their praise.
True to Sallan’s words some of the men had tried to make advances on her. Most were in jest, though others had been less jovial, made in secret, under the cover of darkness, where others could not see. Chronicler had seen such an attempt when she was washing in a creek some distance from the camp.
One of the porters had followed her there and confronted her. She’d been naked, her equipment on the bank. He’d moved up to her, thinking he was sweet-taking her. In a moment they were grappling. Chronicler was about to run back to the camp for aid, when there was a flurry of arms, a mad dance of intertwined limbs and the man was in a stranglehold, his back to her chest. Both his arms were together, up held in
one of her arms, and her other was on his groin, squeezing. The man had yelled, struggled, before being pushed to the ground and kicked in the balls.
Chronicler didn’t know if they’d left her alone after that, but he was no longer worried for her.
“We should be approaching the monolith soon,” she said, late on the third day.
It was evening and the journey thus far had been uneventful. They’d come across a graveyard of camels, their bodies in a strange fugue between life and death, all trace of flesh removed, though their skin remained, taught and stone-dry against sun-bleached bones. At first they’d worried the beasts had been from a recent convoy, but they soon dispelled that notion, seeing the dry grasses and roots growing through the bodies. Those bodies had been a fixture of the region for some time.
“I wonder what happened to them,” Chronicler had asked.
“Attack or starvation,” Hadia had replied.
They hadn’t spent long there.
They were walking, Chronicler thinking about the monolith, when what had to have been the monolith came slowly into view above the next rise. It was a block of black stone, large, maybe thirty feet high and twenty wide to a side, carved from a natural formation. It’s surface was perfectly smooth, almost glass-like, and its edges were worn smooth by the wind. It base was haphazardly cut, the chisel and saw marks from where stone had been removed from bedrock clear.
He touched the monolith’s surface. It was cool, even after a day in the sun. He looked up and saw dried bird shit dribbling down the edges. Whatever its purpose had once been, he doubted that had been it.
They stopped in its shade and some of the guards even managed to climb up to the top, from where they were given a fantastic view of the surrounding region. As the sun dipped in the west and the sky darkened, they fancied they could see the hazy lights of what might have been Yeppo in the distance. By their count it was only a few days away, no more than three, so it might have been it. The thought of being
so close was encouraging.
Chronicler remained distracted by the column as the others prepared camp. He was
running his hands across its length, which had the dark colouration and markings of worked flint. He took some rubbings and made sketches and wrote a short passage describing the thing as the porters look on, bemused.
“You seem fascinated by this,” said Hadia suddenly.
Chronicler wondered how long she’d been standing there, tried not to remember her naked body as he turned round to look at her. Half her face was wrapped in a patterned scarf she wore almost all the time.
“It is a glimpse into our history. What is not to be fascinated by? Someone or some group of people saw fit to build this, here. Of all places, they chose here. Was it the rock that was the perfect size, or a combination of things that led to their decision? And even then… why? Why build this? Is it a grave marker, or a milestone of some sort? Or a monument to some forgotten deity. Perhaps it is the artifice of a worker-god,” he said again, touching it delicately. That would be something, he thought,
touching the work of a Demiurge.
“They were built by the ancestors of the Derren. They sometimes come back to them to pay their respects, though I do not think they feature in any rites or customs, as such,” she said.
“Then why do they come back?”
“Ancestral respect is a common trait amongst nomads. Maybe they just come to say
Chronicler smiled. “Hello,” he said, looking up at the thing. “How long ago did their ancestors built them?”
Hadia shrugged. “Do I look like a historian? I’d say centuries, at least. Maybe more. We use them today as markers to aid navigation. I imagine Sallan has seen a fair few of these in his travels, though not all of them are this close to the trade-routes.”
Chronicler nodded. “You seem quite knowledgeable. Have you travelled with the Derren before?”
She nodded slowly. “Some years ago. It was from them that I learnt the art of survival. But it doesn’t take much skill to survive here. We travelled far south, beyond the Bleached Shelf.”
“I have travelled there myself. It is not a pleasant land. The light reflecting of the chalk stacks is blinding and the land itself is dangerous.”
Hadia nodded in recognition of his words, though made no effort to talk.
They stood there in awkward silence until Chronicler apologised, unsure for what, and left. Hadia remained there, looking at the monolith for some time, before leaving.
They carried on after a short rest and walked well into the night. The terrain was open and the starlight was enough to navigate by, which was welcome, given that the Ivory Moon was nowhere in sight. The Blood Moon, Chronicler had noted earlier, was also on its way to disappearing, though was a few days away from new and hung in the celestial dome like a blooded sickle-blade.
Though some hours after carrying on, a while after it had grown dark, the wind picked up, whipping their cloaks about them. It carried sand and grit from Kharakharadontis, forcing them to make camp. It howled through the night as they tried to sleep.
When they awoke on the fourth day out of Mern, their camp was covered in a layer of fine grit. They shook it off, instinctively trying not to touch it with their bare skin. It was unlikely that the dust carried any Atramental taint that far from Kharkharadontis, but habits and superstitions were what they were. By Chronicler’s reckoning they were over two thousand miles from the heart of the desert and the worst of its effects. They were probably safe. Though he noticed that he too was treating the dust with no small amount of squeamishness.
They carried on the next day, though the winds failed to abate. Visibility
was reduced and walking itself had become a chore, with scarves and cloaks
whipping about the traveller’s faces. The camels seemed unperturbed, but their few
horses had grown uncomfortable and skittish. Their advance north slowed to
Sallan was swearing. Beside him, Szigall was talking “It is not common for the dust storms to blow this far north. This is really unexpected. I am sorry,” he said, as though it were his fault.
More than once they passed sheltered spots, though Sallan made no attempt at stopping. The guards were growing restless. Some had started to blame the woman for the storms, knowing how uncommon they were this far north of Ras. On her part, Hadia remained silent, never once complaining, never appearing troubled by either storm or accusation.
By late afternoon, the complaints had become audible and it was impossible for Sallan or any of the others to ignore them. The porters were worst, muttering to themselves, throwing barely-veiled insults at the woman. Some of the guards, seeing the porters, joined in, adding their more vocal protests into the mix.
Finally Kerd confronted Sallan. “We must stop. If you insist on keeping the woman, fair enough but she has brought the south with her. We cannot walk in this wind. We have to stop.”
“There’s forty miles to go. If we push on that’s two days. If we keep on stopping it’ll
be twice that at best. Wouldn’t you rather be behind Yeppo’s walls?”
Chronicler had wondered why the merchant had pushed on despite the belligerent weather. Though it was a sound idea, they were still some distance from the city. What if the winds died down before then? They would have hurried for nought.
“The horses are skittish, they can barely see ahead of them,” said one of the guards. They had wrapped gauze around the horses eyes, leaving only thin windows through which they could see. It had stopped the worst of the wind, though the horses didn’t like it one bit.
A crowd had formed around the porters and, noticing that he was on the merchant’s side, Chronicler was sensing a confrontation brewing. He raised his hands, trying to calm the men down. “I think we all want to be in Yeppo as quickly as possible.”
“We need to rest. This howling is killing me!” said Tsuri, eliciting a chorus of agreement.
“We have passed half-a-dozen places where we can rest. Just a few hours, then we can carry on.”
Mahr was nodding, clearly in agreement with the guards, though he was also quiet.
Szigall regarded Sallan, as though awaiting the man’s reply. He had been quiet for some time, though spoke, his voice low, barely carrying far enough for the others to hear him. “You are the one who stands to lose if anything happens to the goods. If the men are not well-rested something might happen to the caravan. Perhaps we should stop, for a few hours?”
Sallan’s face was neutral. Eventually he nodded, showing no expression or sign of annoyance or defeat. “Next shelter we stop. Then we push on. I am as sick of this as you are.”
They stopped when they next could. By then the winds had continued to grow and though there did not seem to be as much dust in the air, the sky had completely disappeared beneath a pall of dark grey clouds. Hadia was looking at the sky every so-often, commenting to herself. Finally she winced after looking up, shaking her head.
“What is it?” asked Chronicler.
“Heavy rains from the west.”
It was hardly a difficult assumption to make, given the changing weather, though there was something about the surety of her words or the gravity with which they were spoken. Rain was coming. She knew that for fact. She was not sure of when, or of how hard they would be.
She was looking around, eyes caressing the contours of the land, determining where rain water would flow should it rain heavily enough. The water would flow to the west and though they were not on low ground, they would have been safer moving. “We need to find higher ground,” she said finally.
And then, as though her words were a trigger, it started raining.
The shouts of exasperation around the camp were audible and men began scrambling to bring items beneath shelter. The camels began to bray. The camp they had made was designed to protect against the wind, not rain, and the tents began to collect water and collapse.
The sun was nowhere to be seen and the light was dim, diffused through the thick cloud cover. It was growing late in the day. Soon they would be in total darkness. They had enough wood with them to light a fire, and keep them warm. Though one thing was for sure: they would not be moving any time soon.
The men fortified their tents against the rain, hammering spikes into the earthen wall at their backs and tying their tarps together to create a long awning that they secured into the ground. The camels and horses they tied up underneath it, with their supplies. hey made camp in what room remained, lighting a few fires on the edge. They collected the water for the road ahead, and some of the men even took the opportunity to bathe, standing naked under the rain.
They cooked some rodents they’d caught the previous day and made soup, mixing it in with some veg and spices.
Chronicler was seated next to Mahr. Hadia came next to them with her bowl, her eyes asking if she could sit. They were huddled close, more due to lack of space than anything else. Every gust of wind lifted the awning and brought a shower of water down on them as it slammed back down.
They ate in relative silence, their mood dark as the sky had quickly drawn. “You were part of the army that besieged Mern,” asked Mahr after a while.
The woman shook her head. “It was no army. It was just a camp of their gathered people. I am not a follower, if that’s what you mean. I was a guide to them as I am to you.”
“So you were directing them to the cities, showing them where the caravans moved?”
The woman didn’t reply.
“You would do well to keep that to yourself,” said Mahr.
“How long were you travelling with them?”
“Few months,” she replied languidly
“Long enough to learn about their ways, I’d wager.”
“Not really. They come from the east, Varta.
Immediately, Chronicler sat up. Varta. A colony of the distant Parthisan Republic, it was a major trade hub, linking east and west. Its armies guarded the routes to the North East. It was said to be a huge city, godless, like all Parthisan settlements.
“How does a religious cult emerge from a secular place?” he asked.
“They were exiled for their beliefs and wandered the Surrachi Plains, moving slowly West.”
“What are those beliefs?” asked Chronicler, hoping to get more from Hadia that he had gotten from Ohrima.
“Don’t really know. It’s an otherworlder cult, though I think everyone across the plains knows that by now. They’re militant, that much is for sure – I think some of the exiles were part of Varta’s armies, though I cannot be sure. The Visyon was certainly a high-ranking officer, though.”
“Surely they must have preached something.”
Hadia shrugged. “Never seemed that bothered about gaining new members. They’d speak about a Principal, how his coming would herald unification of peoples in the plains.”
“But they’re not from the plains,” said Mahr, half-interested.
Chronicler was nodding. “If they were exiled from Varta that means the cult had already formed by then.”
Hadia shrugged again. “I didn’t think I would be interrogated on the matter at the time. If I had known, I’d have paid more attention.”
“I hope you don’t think this is an interrogation,” said Chronicler.
Hadia grinned and looked to the heavens suddenly. “It’s going to be a long night.”
It wasn’t just a long night, but also a long day following it for the rains did not let out. Even by late morning, the sky was a carpet of grey, with only cracks between clouds that allowed the slightest of light through.
They lingered at that camp for most of the fifth day. They were carrying goods that would have been ruined by the water so Sallan would not risk moving in the rain, though he doubted anyone minded being held back for longer.
The rains eased in the afternoon and slowly the clouds lessened. Finally, a few hours before sunset a ray of light pierced the clouds. The rain had already stopped by then.
Hadia was nodding. “I think we are safe to carry on now.”
Sallan gave the signal and they broke camp, readied for the last leg of the journey to Yeppo.
The rain had turned the earth muddy, making progress difficult, though it was still better than the winds from the day before.
Eventually what had appeared to them first as hazy light on the horizon of the night sky had grown closer and loomed ahead of them, a great corroded green dome dominating its skyline.
“Finally, we are arrived,” said Sallan, a grin painting his face.
“We are not there yet,” said Szigall, pointing to the sky beyond the city. It was a morass of water-laden clouds, hanging heavy over Yeppo like a pall. The diagonal haze of rain was veiled over the city even as the sun’s light lanced down onto it. The sight perfectly evoked the dichotomy of the natural world – great beauty married with danger.
“Hopefully it’ll continue moving north,” said Chronicler. It was still early morning and they were only a few miles from the city. They’d be there by noon and he’d be able to rest on cushions and have a real drink. The rain did not bother him – once in Yeppo he’d have no need to leave the caravanserai.
Unlike Mern, Yeppo had outgrown its walls and structures spilt over them onto the plains without. Fields, some of them overgrown and untended, surrounded those buildings in a diminishing halo. Most were empty, though a few were being tended to, with men and women working. Most who they passed stood, hands shielding faces from the sun, observing the newcomers.
They followed the most direct path to the city, riding through what were clearly slums and shanties, until they got to the gate – a large double door with a smaller door within one side. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, though the city was still covered by heavy clouds. The gate was closed. Soldiers manned the corridor above, rifles trained on the caravan.
“Are you followers of the Principal?” asked a man from the walls.
They were silent. They had discussed their arrival in Yeppo before, and had planned for the eventuality. They had no way of knowing whether or not the city had claimed loyalty to the Followers or not, and the outcome to whatever answer they gave rested solely on the allegiances of the city.
Sallan and Hadia stepped forward and Sallan spoke. “We are a merchant caravan travelling from Mern. We carry all the necessary paperwork as well as these,” he said, withdrawing his token and holding it up.
“A coin, fancy,” said the guard, disinterested. "Caravans are to stay in the Ekkelin courtyard, outside the walls for the time being.”
“This is a token of the Followers, proclaiming their alliance with the city of Mern. I am authorised by the Zenarchs… and the followers of the Principal. We have been on the road for seven days, beset by storms. We are tired.”
“We had a caravan come from Zaffre a week ago. They were on the road for over a month. They are still in the Ekkelin and you will be joining them too.”
“Why are you barring entry?” shouted Hadia.
“Because of the one whose token you carry.”
“He is returned?” asked Hadia, surprised.
“Not yet, but people are talking. And I’m talking too much. You can either go to Ekkelin or you can seek an audience with the rulers.”
“The whole region is breaking down,” said Sallan, as he turned his gaze back to the others. “Thanks to your employers.”
“I am not them.”
“Fat lot of help your presence here served.”
“You would be grateful were we to encounter a band of the Followers.”
“I would be more grateful if we were walking into the city now.”
“So what now?” asked Szigall.
“Set up in the caravanserai. I will speak with the rulers,” said Sallan.
“I would come with you,” said Chronicler.
Sallan turned to the traveller, regarded him for a moment. “You are no advisor to me, nor are you part of this caravan. You are just a hanger-on. Tell me, what
are the credentials with which you would present yourself before the rulers of
There was silence as everyone looked at Chronicler, awaiting an answer. Truth was, he was looking for the same answer, and could not find anything convincing. His lips moved, though no sound came out. He just stood there, blinking like a man defeated.
“Szigall will assume control in my absence. Hadia and Tsuri, come with me,” said Sallan.
Chronicler remained silent for the rest of the day. He did not speak a word as they entered the sparse courtyard of what turned out to be the most frugal caravanserai he had ever seen. He kept to himself as the others unloaded the camels and watered them. He ignored them as they disappeared inside the room and the sun disappeared behind the city.
“The man doesn’t know you,” said Mahr, with a peace offering. It took the form of a tin cup, its enamelled coating chipped into oblivion. Chronicler took it. Warm milk with a hint of alcohol. A common-enough drink amongst rural types. He’d never liked it much and took Mahr’s offering of the drink as a sign of the place’s limited
He took it wordlessly and sipped as he looked south at the rest of the world.
The sky was already darkening and for a mile-or-so along the road south braziers had been lit, leading up to the city. Behind him the city walls had been similarly. It was a formidable sight, though one that would alert any raiders to its location, not
that they didn’t know it already.
“Sometimes they see you as interfering in their business.”
Chronicler looked at him, wounded. “I was trying to help,” he said.
“But were you, really?”
“Of course I was,” replied Chronicler. His words came slower than before.
“Or were you just trying to get a closer look at another throne-room?”
“That’s not all I look for, and you know it.”
“I’m not the one who needs convincing,” smiled Mahr.
“Sod them. They won’t be around next year, when I’m marching halfway across the world.”
Mahr shook his head. “You just explained why they don’t like you, and I don’t even think you noticed,” he said, leaving.
Chronicler left him there and continued looking south, watching the grey sky continue to lose its colour. Soon he was seeing familiar constellation and stars, though his eyes kept on returning to the braziers and the road south as his thoughts kept on repeating what Mahr had told him.
He finished the drink, leaving the cup on the wall, and left the caravanserai.
Chronicler's impression was that the majority of the city’s slums and lower districts were located outside the walls. That normally meant undesirable industries, such as tanneries, slaughterhouses and mortuaries, to name but a few. Most people avoided such places, though in his experience it was where the heart of any city could be found. Eliminate those hidden industries and those who rendered such services, and any city would rapidly falter.
He found a club of sorts and was drawn to it by the sound of carousing and music long before he laid eyes on it. When he did, it wasn’t an impressive structure, with open walls, inside which man and woman stood and sat drinking, dancing and singing.
He mingled, bought a drink – something better than that fermented goat’s milk – and sat, watching the people. Seeing others having fun went a long way towards improving his mood, but he remained an outsider. The people were friendly enough though it was obvious to everyone there that he didn’t belong. He could not share in their jokes or experiences and much was lost on him, not just through the natural barrier that language presented.
After some time he found himself on a table with people from seemingly mixed backgrounds. There were two male labourers, a woman who had brought the reek of the tanneries with her, a guard from the south who had arrived with the other caravan, a gong farmer (a polite term for what many might consider an offensive job cleaning cesspits), and a sin eater; all of which were busy talking nonsense that seemed to pivot around local gossip.
“How long have you been here?” Chronicler asked the guard during a rare lull in the conversation.
“Two days. Came from the north, Zaffre.”
Chronicler nodded. “That’s where we’re heading, if we can get in.”
“No luck so far. Stupid, makes no sense locking people out.”
Chronicler nodded, and realised he hadn’t stopped nodding for some time. “True. How bad is the threat anyway? The Followers aren’t that bad.”
The table turned quiet and faces turned to meet his gaze. God, they’re ugly, he thought as he saw them, oblivious to the attention he had drawn. He barely noticed that other faces, not from his table had turned towards him as well.
“Those Followers have been funding bandit raids on our men. My cousin was killed in a caravan moving here from Hattre. Others have lost their lives too,” said one of the labourers. The others nodded, some raising their glasses in a show of respect. There were mumbles about someone whose name Chronicler did not catch being a good man.
“I meant no disrespect, but I have been on the road for some time and have not seen any signs of hostility.”
“Then you are lucky,” said someone.
“Or coming from the south,” said someone else. There was some nervous laughing, though otherwise the table remained quiet.
“And all this talk about an Otherworlder. It’s enough to get me worried, and you know me.”
Some silent nods. People were thinking, their thoughts reverting to personal fears and worries.
“They say he can make magics,” said the tanner-slave, making a strange gesture on her brow, “with his hands, like a shaper.”
“They say once they find him we won’t be able to stop them and that even Daaz will fall to their armies.”
“My brother says Amre has been taken already, plundered, and razed.”
Chronicler slouched into his chair, losing interest. It seemed as though everyone was too interested in idle gossip to try and learn what was really happening. Word. whatever it was was travelling between cities. Transport and communication had slowed to a trickle, but it hadn’t stopped, and the arrival of any new group surely brought more news, or what passed for it, to the city. Even Chronicler had added fuel to the fire with his words.
He stumbled back to the caravanserai and climbed into bed, disturbing half of the room.