I am obsessed with the sea. I am convinced that it is going to kill me, eventually, but I love it. I am happy to be on it, but not to go in it. I will try and do a more interesting post soon, but I've been busy and ill the last few weeks so it just hasn't been happening.
I had planned on writing a chapter or two to go between the last Gret/Gray chapter and this one, where they would go and investigate what caused the stampede, but of course they don't find anything because it was Gret who caused the stampede so that Gray could be a hero and have a Dogstar tribesman as his permanent travelling companion. Only they might have found something weird going on to link with the bigger plot. Partly the fact that I couldn't decide how to play it is how come I never wrote it.
I always found that trope in adventure stories (be they fantasy, sci-fi or whatever) really troubling - this idea that a person would have a companion with a life-debt that meant they would accompany them from then until forever. There is always a troubling sense that the western, or western analogue, hero might start to take this for granted, if they didn't already do so; that it made perfect sense for someone to follow them around, no matter how far from home that might take them, and that they wouldn't themselves have to give anything up for this, at best, 'noble' savage. It's like the way some guys still seem to think that a woman should give up her job, her hopes and her dreams and her family and follow him to wherever he wants to be as soon as or even before they get married.
So I decided to write a world in which it was not only taken for granted, but systematised. Where young nobles engineered tragedies as a way to get ahead in life. Where people's paths were set from birth, and that meant you didn't have to question the morals of what you were doing. I may have also been riffing off the way that the D&D class system has calcified fantasy worlds into careerist teleologies where actions are pre-justified rather than considered. Monsters are there to die and NPCs are there to join your party, their lives otherwise, by definition, cannot be important.Anyway, that's what was going on in those last few chapters, or was supposed to be going on at least.
The journey was swift and quiet. Each of them was wrapped in his own thoughts about their failure and what it meant, for they had left the Dogstar people without answers for their grief and now they rode instead onto new challenges, or at least to home for Gray and Gret before those new challenges were found and faced.
The forest welcomed them again, as of course it would. The Shard was not fussy and it spread itself thinly for miles before it gave up and relinquished control to the plains, its fingers thrusting north with a languid strength. The trees seemed to be friends, scenic expressions of a gentle verdant adventure that was both rich and childish in its appeal, but that was before they crowded in on you and began to cut out the sun in earnest. They could always have turned back, except that they couldn’t because that was the price of leaving like they had. They could have gone round the forest, but it had been too inviting and they had had no reason not to enter in the first place, except for a warning that they had already ignored. Gret and Gray felt fine about what they were doing. They felt fine about what they had done.
T’Dore followed them willingly.
As the path winded, sometimes becoming no more than deer tracks in the heavy clay and deadwood mulch, the three were forced at times to ride in single file. Gret chose to ride in front and the other two tried not to let their leader out of their sight, despite the trick played by the trees. There was at last a moment or relief from the claustrophobia as they crossed a small stream. The ancient wooden bridge that spanned the leafy trickle looked like it was going to disintegrate from the mould that enveloped it, but it was sturdy and remained intact as the three clip-clopped across. They breathed deep of the musky air.
There are places of power in the Shard, places where the beauty of the forest could steal your breath away. To the west there are valleys so thick with growth, where the contours of the land could not be seen directly but were translated exactly for the viewer into the tops of the trees that lined them. There are groves where the trees give way to clover, hidden from all but the birds but where the moon seems to pool on clear nights. There are lakes where the trees came up right to the water’s edge, where the water is so still and deep that it was a mirror of the sky and the worlds that are hidden there. And there are others still.
Gray lost sight of Gret around a sharp twist in the path and behind the bole of a massive oak.
And at the heart of the forest is growth, crawling out of death, mulch and decay, fed by the light of the sun. A never-ending generation of new tissue, knitted together from the earth and the air. Twining around itself as it spreads outwards and upwards. Dark and beautiful and secret and bathed with light. Unstoppable and uncaring. An expression of joy unbound.
When Gray turned the corner his brother was nowhere to be seen.
‘Maybe he’s gone ahead,’ T’Dore said after a while, although saying it settled the hot iron ball that his stomach had become even lower. ‘He knows the way through the forest, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes. And so do I,’ Gray said earnestly.
‘He’ll be fine.’
‘And so will we. We’ll probably see him again as soon as we get out of the trees. The path here is so dense that it’ll be best if we just keep going,’ Gray said. ‘Gret’ll be doing that too.’
‘You’re right. He knows how to look after himself,’ T’Dore said. ‘We just have to do the same.’
He hid it well, but by the time they reached the edge of the forest Gray’s entire lower body was a nagging presence. Nervous tension lay heavy in his guts and legs – a feeling like he hadn’t been to the toilet in days. They had eaten basic rations in the saddle and hadn’t stopped for anything but despite the time they had made Gret’s horse could not be seen on the plain that stretched ahead. The clear air and the elevation afforded them a view that stretched for miles, but they didn’t mention this to each other. Gret must have ridden far ahead somehow and even now was back at the castle. It would have been an easy story to believe, had it been true.
The last approach to home was badly thought out and even less well realised. The winding road took a route that ignored level ground in favour of the steepest gradients available. The loose gravel that lined the paths often pooled at the bottom of any hills and had to be continually redistributed by a small force of workers, gleaned on a rota basis from the serfs and other indentured men of the surrounding villages. The maintenance troupe kept everything clean and functional and looking good, but it was dreaded by most as it meant that crops were sidelined – and there was no compensation for that.
That they couldn’t, from a distance, see the high motte that the Grien mansion stood upon because of the intervening hills should have come as a surprise to Gray. Equally, so should have done the realisation, at last, that the motte was not there at all, but that the whole complex lay instead in the lee of one of the tall, natural, hills. But right then, Gray had a lot on his mind, and this information, in that it filtered into his mind at all, just added to the unease that he felt about his brother.
‘I didn’t think that it looked like this, to the east of the Shard,’ T’Dore had mumbled, slightly embarrassed to be saying so. When Gray said nothing and just continued to survey the road ahead in a distracted manner T’Dore added, ‘but I may have been told wrong,’ and he left it at that.
The naming customs of the noble and semi-noble houses of the Fertile East are both idiosyncratic and very specific and as such bear some effort in detailing, although at not too great a length. The families are bound to the land that they oversee in a way that is far more fundamental than the mere ownership that one might claim over, say, a horse and cart or a slave. The families’ true, given surname is that of the province in which they reside, and it is not in the way of a title that it is so. In the truest sense imaginable, the family is the land and the land is the family. The question of ownership, or responsibility and connection is one that goes both ways. The two have become, over the years and from before the records of history, indistinguishable.
So, the family is the land; but for each child after the first that tie, that ‘is’, is expressed differently. The firstborn is, of course, the child expected to maintain stewardship, to inherit the seat of family and to take on the mantle of control. This is true if the child is male or female, and there is no instance in history where a ‘na’ has married a ‘na’ – for that is the nominal conjunction which is taken for a firstborn – despite the ideas that a few of them may have had; for the land has borders that are old and written in rock and stone and they will not be dissolved by either love or war. The land does not care.
In the language of the East, ‘na’ has a special significance. It is complete in its meaning because its meaning is nothing, in a way. It is a tautological signifier, a way of saying that the two words linked are in fact the same and that there is no gap of meaning between them. It is a linguistically fascinating word and it is, as we have already seen, always set between the given and the family name of the first child. It is a word of power.
For the subsequent children the tie is lesser, the link in their name a weaker one, and their place in the world less rigidly defined. The second born is called ‘am’, which means ‘body of’, and indeed a great many of these have been known to take up arms of some sort and help their older siblings in the defence and patrol of the lands they are part of. Third born children take on ‘rei’, which means ‘spirit’ or ‘consciousness of’; fourth is ‘kin’, a word meaning ‘mind of’ and after that all children are called ‘de’, which means merely ‘of’.
There has always been great significance set by these titles and the meanings behind them. Even as modernity slips past and erodes beliefs and other traditions into mere pebbles on the beach, these few remain. The land and the family have been there forever and have been forever as one. The names have power.
Gray’s homecoming was more muted than he had thought that it would be when he had thought about it before he had left. He almost felt ashamed to return, he was weary and he was on edge. With the constant searching glances that he was casting and the slinking slow pace they had adopted it felt more like he was sneaking into somewhere that had been left open but forbidden to him. He felt like he was going somewhere that he shouldn’t be going, even though it was home and a place that he should always feel welcome in.
The courtyard was empty, although he was certain that a servant must have seen his approach. The buildings seemed to loom unnaturally about Gray and T’Dore, the Dogstar tribesman who’s people had never worked with stone in that way showed great restraint in his reaction to such an unnaturally built environment. His pride was what stopped him admitting visibly to his backward awe at the greater works of man. He had yet to see a city, but then again so did Gray, so there was something in store for the both of them in the full course of time that would even up the place that they saw themselves in the world.
Gray dismounted. T’Dore followed suit and they led their horses around into the stables. The boy there didn’t look at Gray, except for a short glance at first that still managed to convey both deference and pity. Gray left the horses with the boy and led T’Dore into the building proper.
The uneasy calm continued. What few servants he saw bowed quickly to Gray and then departed. Somehow he felt himself to be being herded by these phantoms, pushed steadily, firmly but indefinably – and so unarguably – towards the heart of the house, and so towards his father’s audience chamber.
When he got there, Gray found that the doors were closed. He decided to go with drama rather than contrition, he was not even sure what he was supposed to be apologising for, if he was supposed to be apologising at all, and so he pushed the doors out firmly, so that they swung into the room with a crash. Inside, the room was panelled in heavy varnished wood and smelled of teak and oil. Severe paintings were hung about its walls, of relatives and ancestors and the land that they lived in underneath brooding skies and the tumult of the darker seasons.
It was not a room that Gray had often entered, or one that he had spent much time in when he had. Now though, he noticed all sorts of little details, like the set of his great granddad’s chin, and how it mirrored that of his great great aunt’s in another painting on the opposite wall. He was certain that these two were not related by blood, the one was the other’s sister in law but the resemblance was uncanny, strange and eerie in the light that barely reached the walls. Gray noticed these things because he was trying not to notice his father, who sat sternly upon the chair of his office while his wife, Gray’s mother, stood behind him with her hand a conciliatory presence on the old man’s shoulder. Gray’s mother had a look of concern upon her face. Gray’s thoughts, when he allowed them at all, where simple and consisted of ‘oh dear.’ Gray’s Father spoke.
‘Gray na Grien,’ he said. ‘Where the hell have you been?’