John Horne

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XVI. Bron’s Map and the City on the Lake

January 14th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Garyth and Xond rode to a building made of hewn plank, the largest structure in the settlement. Leaving the horses tied outside, they entered a wide room with a stone fireplace at one end. There was a long table near the fireplace with wooden benches on either side. Three men sat at the end of the table nearest the hearth and looked up as they came in. One of them got up and shuffled toward the two travelers. He was an old man with gray hair and beard and a hobbling limp. His clothes were threadbare versions of those worn by the merchants Garyth had recently met; loose trousers and a shirt with baggy sleeves.

“Am I seeing Xond, head of the far western clan and shrewdest horse trader in all of Xenar?” he said as he approached. “Where is Samir? He is the one who rides this road if any from Xond’s clan come east. I have seen him three times since I have seen his father.” With that, he grasped Xond’s wrist with a tight grip typical of the greeting Garyth had witnessed between friends meeting again after a long separation.

“Xond, the horse trader, traded Samir for this young Wyelander.” Xond replied. “Garyth, meet Bron, businessman and benefactor of all herders who enter his domain.”

Garyth extended his right hand in greeting, but Bron’s grip was tentative as he looked Garyth over from head to boots. “I expect the Wyelanders threw a good bit of gold into the deal, for Xenar has no better than Samir.”

“Be careful with your compliments for Garyth has learned much of our speech,” Xond replied. “He learns everything quickly and is a credible horseman, herder, and hunter. But there is no balance sheet to consider, for the trade is temporary.”

“A Wyelander in Xenar! I am filled with wonder. Are you saying that Samir is in Wyeland? Come over near the fire and tell the tale while I get a stew cooking. This is Jesir and Jair, timber agents on their way up river to grade logs.” The two men nodded, both studying Garyth, for neither had seen a Wyelander before. Xond and Garyth excused themselves to take care of the horses as Bron opened a door in the back wall and called for the cook. When they came back in a large kettle was hanging over the fire. Garyth could not keep up when Xond sat down and began a more detailed explanation. He did hear his father’s name, and tried to be attentive. Xond suggested that he go out and fill the watering trough for the horses and Garyth was glad to get outside again. He took his time with the horses and drew water from a deep well to fill a trough within the corral fence. Two other horses, no doubt belonging to the timber agents, were in the corral. Three months ago Garyth would have admired them, but now he could see why a clan would have traded them. They were good horses, but not superior. He used horse speech and they immediately came to him, confirming his suspicions that they had been bred on the plains, perhaps by Samir.

Garyth looked out across the broad valley, again impressed by the river. He had always been fascinated with water, and the Xandar seemed to draw his attention. Far to the south, beyond the horizon, lay Xandar Tahn, Lake Sool, and the heart of Xenar, but he wondered what he would find if he followed the river toward its source in the mountains. His daydreams were interrupted by Xond calling him in to share the stew.

Conversation was going strong when Garyth entered the store again, but silence fell upon the group once the hot stew was ladled into bowls. The two timber agents ate quickly and excused themselves with the mention of an early departure. When his bowl was empty, Garyth spoke to Xond in Xenarian. “You once mentioned that there could be a trail through the mountains to Wyeland. Would Bron know more of that story?”

Bron was surprised to hear a foreigner speaking in flawless Xenarian. “So, Xond has told you some old stories, has he?” Bron shifted his glance from Garyth to Xond.

“Garyth grew up in the western reaches of these mountains,” Xond replied. “I was curious if similar legends were told on that side.”

“I’ll be right back,” Bron said as he rose and went into the back room.

Bron returned carrying a soft fleece, which he gently unrolled on the floor, skin side up. They gathered around the skin to view an elaborate drawing that could be mistaken for artistic decorations. Bron spoke rapidly and Xond translated.

“Bron says he has had the fleece for over twenty years. The hunter he got it from copied it from a cliff carving and felt it was a map, perhaps to some hidden treasure. Bron planned to one day try to find the carving and perhaps find the treasure, but he says he is getting too old and craves comfort more than adventures.”

Garyth stared at the pattern on the skin, walking around it to try to find the best perspective. “If it is a map,” he said in Xenarian, “it seems to be cluttered with writing. The maps I saw in Wyeland had names for the villages and rivers, but this skin seems covered with symbols that make it difficult to see the landmarks. Could that crooked path be a river?” Garyth wanted to say “crooked line” but did not remember the Xenarian word for “line.”

“Possibly,” Bron answered, studying the area to which Garyth pointed. “Many small rivers feed the Xandar.”

Xond made the next comment while pointing to an area of the map. “These symbols could represent mountain peaks. See how the river lines are drawn in the spaces between them.”

“Did the hunter give you any clues?” Garyth asked Bron.

“A lot of my life has passed since this came into my possession,” Bron replied. “But it comes to me that he did say that the way we are looking at it is right. At least that part was higher on the sheer face of the rock than the part on this side.” His gestures confirmed Garyth’s guess as to the correct orientation.

“Look here,” Garyth said. “This could be a waterfall.” Garyth did not know the Xenarian word for waterfall, but said something like river-jump instead.

“River-jumps are beyond my experience,” Xond murmured. “What do you think, Bron?”

“I think the lad is right, but means to say cataract,” Bron answered, inserting the correct word and pronouncing it slowly so Garyth could learn it.

“Yes, cataract,” Xond said. “Now I understand. I’ve never been close to one but I’ve spied a few in distant mountains after storms.”

“They are common enough in the high mountains,” Bron said, “especially in spring when the snow melts. If this is a cataract, there seem to be two rivers converging just above it.”

“But what would this path be?” Garyth asked, pointing to a broken line that meandered near one of the rivers.

“Perhaps it is a trail or road,” Bron ventured to guess. “I do recollect the hunter saying he was following a trail when he found the cliff bearing this picture.”

“There are more trails than one,” Xond pointed out as he followed the course of the first broken line downward. “But if those symbols are writing, then every trail, river, and mountain is named.”

Sure enough, what to Garyth had first appeared to be faded lines going this way and that were doubtlessly similar to the broken line they were now certain marked a trail. But all of the geographical symbols seemed to be overwritten with the mysterious writing.

“How large did the hunter say the carving was?” Xond asked Bron.

“I don’t remember exactly what he said but I remember I did not believe him.” Bron replied. “I think he said far taller than a tree.”

Judging from the way the river lines seemed to converge, Garyth thought he could figure out in which direction the Xandar flowed. If he knew this, he could then deduce the direction in which the mountains of Wyeland lay. To his great disappointment, that area of the map was smeared and conveyed no distinct impression.

Xond seemed to sense his thoughts for he said, “It is a pity this side is unclear, for you may have found another way home, Garyth.”

It was getting late so they bade Bron good night and walked to the nearby sleeping cabin in which they had stored their saddles and packs. Bron’s store was actually an inn, but guests slept in small cabins rather than rooms. Herders preferred that arrangement.

Xond and Garyth were up with the sun and ate breakfast in Bron’s store. The timber agents had left an hour before sunrise, for they had a long trip ahead of them. Bron’s hesitation about accepting Garyth had vanished and he urged them to eat an ample breakfast to give them a good start on their ride south.

“I don’t know what kind of cities you have in Wyeland, Garyth,” Bron said in a friendly way, “but no one forgets a visit to Xandar Tahn. If you make it back up this way and want to try to find the ancient trails in the mountains, I’ll give you the fleece to help guide you. You tell your father you have a friend where the Xandar leaves the mountains.”

Garyth thanked Bron for his kindness and went out and saddled the horses while Xond and Bron shared a few parting words. Before the sun had made much progress in the new day, Xond and Garyth were riding the road that followed the rim of the floodplain valley, headed south.

The journey south required six days, but they met no severe storms, only a few light snows. The wind blew fiercely cold several days after their departure from Bron’s store, but it was mostly at their backs and seemed to push them toward their destination. They passed through several small settlements where the residents drew their living from the timber traffic on the river by clearing jams and snags as the logs drifted around bends and over bars. During the rest of the year they farmed and fished. The settlements consisted of log houses that provided good shelter, but also gave evidence that not all the logs arrived at their intended destination. As Xond had said, the villagers were different from the plains clans; a nomadic people confined to one place can be moody and crafty.

The terrain had smoothed out as they got further from the mountains, and now resembled the unbroken flatness of the plains near Dryish. The river valley became even broader, with only a slight drop to the floodplain as the river channel split into several streams, all headed generally south with a lot of unhurried twists and turns. Garyth saw many horses and a number of wagons on the road as they drew closer to Xandar Tahn.

One night they made camp on the plains and, after eating, Xond asked Garyth to walk with him away from their campfire. It was dark and moonless. Garyth’s eyes slowly adjusted to the blackness. A high overcast hid the stars but there was an orange brightness on the horizon to the south.

“Those are the torches and lamps of Xandar Tahn,” Xond said. “It resembles a distant fire on the plains, like those started by lightening in the summer. Only that glow never moves.”

Garyth remembered looking back at Lowell on his climb toward Fairview. That night he had seen many points of light scattered in the darkness. The glow he now saw was, as Xond said, more like a grass fire sweeping the plains.

“Xandar Tahn is built on the north side of Lake Sool,” Xond said. “People first settled the southern end of the lake because the fishing was good in the south but not in the north. There was a marsh to the northeast that was filled with oily water. A spring of oil seeped from the ground mixing with the waters at the north end of the lake. Our ancestors found that if the oil was collected before it mixed, it would burn with an almost smokeless flame. So they contained the oil to keep it out of the lake and used it to supply heat and light. People began to settle the northern shore and the fishing improved as the water cleared. That was ages ago, but the oil continues to flow. Today it is collected in barrels and carried to the city where people use it to provide light and heat for their homes. They also use peat dug from the old oil-marsh for fuel. As the city grew, other springs of oil were found and some wells dug so the supply keeps up with demand. On the plains we let the sun determine our days. In Xandar Tahn the lamps burn late and people seldom rise before the morning is half spent.”

“But what do people find to do after sunset?” Garyth asked.

“Merchants keep their shops open three hours after sunset,” Xond replied. “There are taverns, bazaars, and performances. People visit one another. You will even see many torch boats out on the lake near the city. Especially in the summer, when hot weather settles in, people like to take boats out on the lake, sometimes sleeping on them. This time tomorrow night you will see it all for yourself.”

Garyth followed Xond back to their camp, glancing back from time to time as if expecting to see flames appear over the horizon and sweep toward them. If they did, he knew the river was a safe refuge and nearby.

It was early afternoon of the following day when they rode into the outskirts of Xandar Tahn. The outlying houses were made of wood boards fastened to wooden framing. From a distance the city seemed to be gleaming white surrounded by a forest, but as they drew closer, Garyth realized that the center of the city was made from white stone and was surrounded by uncountable numbers of wooden houses on tree-lined streets. Xond explained that there were some stone block structures, but most were made from white clay bricks. Clay was mined to the east and baked into bricks and tiles for the houses and buildings in the central city. The trees were neither thickly planted nor tall, and were beautifully shaped. Even the outer neighborhoods of the city were beautiful to Garyth.

As they progressed toward the lake, the road crossed several wooden bridges that spanned man-made canals. Houses lined the canals with boats tied to platforms along the edge on either side. They finally crossed over a stone bridge beyond which all the buildings were white brick and tile.

The inner city was a wonder to Garyth. The buildings were all at least two stories and many were even taller. The streets were clean and Xond explained that there were people whose job it was to patrol the streets scooping up trash and horse droppings. They passed beautiful fountains and gardens until finally arriving at a very large building. The building was an impressive four-story structure with a center window­less section even higher. A large pool with a central fountain blocked the entrance of the building from the street. They rode through an archway to the right of the pool into a large stable with a straw-covered floor and many stalls. Two boys came forward to take their horses when they dismounted and removed their saddlebags. Xond made arrangements for their loads to be placed in a storage room.

“This building is the Council Chamber, where the council of Xenarian chiefs meets to handle business,” Xond explained. “Xenarians would hate to live in a country regulated by too many laws, for we value freedom above all else. Nevertheless, by common agreement we have established a council to make laws for the good of all and settle disputes with justice. I believe there is a similar council in Wyeland, is there not?”

Garyth muttered an affirmative grunt, so overcome with his surroundings he hardly heard Xond. Walking out of the stable they climbed a curving stairway and entered a hall. Several men wearing herder robes stood conversing in a small circle. One of them glanced in Xond’s direction and immediately left the group and approached them.

“We’ve been expecting you ever since Sanar and the other merchants returned from kolsar. Welcome horse-brother.” Turning to Garyth the man said, “And this has to be the son of Carlten; Garyth, I believe. I am Dor, Xond’s brother. I am honored to welcome you to Xandar Tahn.”

Garyth now realized the resemblance between the two men, though Dor was younger. Dor gripped Garyth’s forearm in a brotherly clan greeting. Garyth had never been in such a place before, yet Dor’s greeting made him feel as though he belonged. He had no problem understanding the greeting and responding in Xenarian

“Come over and meet these horsemen,” Dor said, leading Garyth toward the circle of men who had now all turned to face them.

After introductions and some small talk, Garyth followed Dor and Xond out the back of the hall to a long terrace overlooking Lake Sool. Garyth had never before looked across water without seeing the opposite bank, but here the water seemed limitless. The day was clear and sunny with a wintry edge. The water sparkled. Boats bobbed and rocked on mooring lines offshore. The gleaming city stretched away on either side, hugging the gentle curve of the lakeside. A wide gap in the shore far to the left marked where the Xandar flowed into the lake.

They turned right and walked along the terrace for some distance, passing from one building to another without having to descend to ground level. It was like a street bordering the lake at the second-story level. Garyth noticed that most buildings had a second story above the terrace, making them three stories from ground level. Eventually they entered a door in a beautiful building that turned out to be a house. Several women rose from cushions and smiled when they entered. Garyth realized that their ages spanned three generations as he was introduced to Xond and Dor’s mother, Ha-zel; Dor’s wife, Gael; and their daughter, Al-tir. Al-tir was a girl of about sixteen years with long black hair and smiling eyes. She was one of the most beautiful girls Garyth had ever seen and he suddenly felt awkward. He learned she had an older brother who was riding with one of the eastern clans.

Ha-zel led Xond and Garyth upstairs to their rooms, which opened out onto a veranda furnished with a low table and straw mats. Garyth’s small bedroom was draped with curtains and wall hangings, giving it the feel of an elaborate tent. Lush stuffed cushions were scattered about. It reminded him of his first night in Xond’s camp with his grandfather. Walking out on the veranda he breathed deeply and took in the scene before him. He was sure no one would believe him when he described this view in Bridgeboro. He thought of Hamish’s pride in dusty Lowell, and wondered how Hamish would feel if he could see Xandar Tahn. Xond joined him on the veranda.

“There is something downstairs I must show you,” he said to Garyth. Garyth followed him down the spiral stairs to the ground level of the house.

“The kitchen is through that door,” Xond pointed. “Food is cooked there and lifted to the upper floors in baskets. But this way to the room you are probably in need of.” He walked to the end of a narrow hall and opened a door into a tiled room with a trough beside a small well.

“In Xandar Tahn, we do not have outhouses or open plains to answer nature’s needs. This is what we call the comdar. When you need to relieve yourself, you draw up a couple of buckets of clean water and fill this basin.” Xond drew water from the well as he spoke. They were on the ground level, close to the lake, so the well was shallow. “Then you put about a half bucket of water in this small trough and the rest in this basin. Now answer nature’s urging, either sitting or standing. Some things will take more water and some less. We do not have tall grass near at hand but we do have these mats of pressed grass that serve the same purpose.” Xond pointed to a stack of small coarse mats, resembling thick paper, in a niche beside the comdar. “And when everything is finished, you drop the used mat into the basin and push that handle.” Xond pushed a wooden handle, opening gates at the end of the trough. The trough, which he had filled from the well, suddenly emptied into the basin, sending water coursing through a channel and down a large drain. Garyth could hear the water splashing just below the level of the floor. He was once again astounded.

“The waste doesn’t go into the lake,” Xond assured him. “It is directed into a tile channel and away from the city. Walking toward the door Xond turned and said, “I will leave you to practice. Yonder is a basin and towel for washing.”

Garyth soon had it all figured out. It was a simple device, but so useful in a crowded city. He had never heard of such a thing in Wyeland, and wondered if one might be found in Riverhaven.

Al-tir joined Xond and Garyth on the veranda and pointed out many of the waterfront sights that could be seen from their vantage point. She reminded Garyth of young Gwen from early in his journey, for her eyes seemed to laugh with the joy of life. The two young people began to feel more at ease with each other as they talked. Xond pressed Garyth to recount some of his experiences with the herders, helping him to express himself in Xenarian when his limited vocabulary slowed him down. Al-tir promised to help him with language lessons while she showed him the city. In return she asked that Garyth tell her all about Wyeland.

Dor and Gael appeared bringing out the evening meal to the table. Ha-zel was down in the kitchen loading the food into the lifting basket. Soon they were all comfortable around the table on cushions brought out from the guestrooms. The sun was low in the southwest, casting a golden sheen on the lake.

“This may be the last time we can eat outside before next spring,” Ha-zel said. “But it is so beautiful here that I thought Garyth would enjoy it, even if it is a bit cool. We may live in the city, Garyth, but our hearts are on the plains. Dor must be here for his Council duties and Al-tir studies the healing arts at a healing house in the city.”

“Do you find the studies difficult?” Garyth asked, thinking of Smyth and all his books.

“The study is not difficult,” Al-tir answered. “But it is very difficult to see people in pain, especially children. We do what we can. With children, we treat them but also try to distract them from their condition. You must tell me what you know about healing arts in Wyeland.”

“Tell Garyth about the herder you distracted last month,” Dor suggested, smiling.

Al-tir blushed but said nothing. Gael took up the story.

“A herder from the east was brought in with a stomach wound. He had been sewn up on the plains but was showing signs of infection. He had been gored by a bison. Al-tir began telling him jokes to distract him; no doubt she will soon be pestering you for Wyeland jokes to add to her collection. Soon the man began to laugh so hard he was in danger of breaking the stitches and opening the wound again. It also caused him great pain. The chief healer made Al-tir leave the house.”

“When I realized how it hurt him to laugh, I stopped telling jokes,” Al-tir said in her own defense. “But every time our eyes met he would start laughing and hurting all over again. I cannot help it if a mere glance made him laugh.”

“Of course you would never try to cause someone pain, but you once worked very hard to make comdar mats out of itch-grass to cause your brother a little discomfort,” Ha-zel said, not letting her off so easily.

“My brother deserved that,” Al-tir replied indignantly. “It was not my fault that my father used the comdar ahead of him.” As she spoke she lowered her glance so as not to make eye contact with Dor, who squirmed uncomfortably at the memory. Garyth had experienced itch-grass on the plains and decided he would check the comdar mats carefully before using them while he was a guest in Dor’s house.

Garyth and Al-tir took Tarn and Xond’s horse outside the city the next morning. They left the horses in a grassy corral where they would be cared for until Garyth and Xond returned west. Al-tir had spent time with her uncle’s clan and was naturally comfortable on horseback, so they rode out on the open plains. They were showing off to each other, and quite content that their race was a tie.

They caught a ride back into the city on an oil wagon and Al-tir became Garyth’s guide to the back streets and hideaways of Xandar Tahn. Garyth loved her light-hearted humor but found that he really did not know Xenarian well enough to translate Wyeland jokes. She pestered him for details about his life in Wyeland and found out that in two weeks he would have a birthday.

As darkness fell, they did not return home for supper. Instead, she took him to a small cookshop in an alley lit by oil lamps. Then they strolled to the central plaza near the Council Chamber fountain. It was brightly lit and filled with small merchants’ stalls and many people. It reminded Garyth of the market day in Bridgeboro, but so much better. Several jugglers and acrobats were performing, each with a bowl into which the onlookers dropped small coins. The air was filled with competing sounds from several groups of instrumentalists. A young man on tall stilts was circulating through the crowd snatching hats. He placed one on Garyth’s head, scolding him for being out at night without a hat. Of course its rightful owner quickly caught up and the hat was returned to him. Garyth had never had such a time.

Tags: Another Way Home

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Peter // Jan 18, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Ah, I love the part of the story where we happen upon the title (unless that story happens to star Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss… then it’s not quite so captivating). Makes me wonder what is to come.

  • 2 Ruth // Jan 18, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    Peter, you have pretty sharp eyes! I saw it, but I figured that was only because I was proofreading (which I do with more or less success).

  • 3 Peter // Jan 23, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Ruth, I think the proofreading has gone exceptionally well.

  • 4 Tricia // Jan 23, 2008 at 10:14 am

    And believe me when I vouch for the fact that Pete does have really sharp eyes. This is high praise indeed, Grammy Ruth!

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