We hopped for twenty-seven days and twenty-six nights. Twenty-six. Fifteen of those evenings were spent in suitable establishment hovels along the boggy coast, but eleven were spent under the stars. In the open. Exposed to the elements. That was both incredible and terrible.
What was incredible? The stars. Only the Uncle knew it was that breathtaking. Being a keen enthusiast of Celestia, I’ve always prided myself on my knowledge of the heavens. But out there, with no man-made light to interfere, the effect was truly stunning. It is actually difficult to identify a patch of true-dark. The depth of the star blanket is staggering.
And then the terrible. I woke one night to find huge lizard-like eyes peering down at me. Huge. My instinct told me it was a dragon, so I leapt up and scampered from the rock right into the boggy water. Squelching around in the middy filth, the huge dragon-lizard proceeded to settle onto the rock and close its eyes. Sleeping. I had apparently stolen its spot.
“A dragon!” I pointed at the vast scaly bulk and Hop-Man opened an eye. Then closed it again.
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
“It’s a bog-lizard. Harmless.”
Harmless indeed. It would have broken bones had it sat on me. And it was only when we were moving the following day that Hop-Man casually gave me the news.
“Yer lucky it weren’t a croc. Tha’ could’ve done damage.” Crocodiles!
But for all of Hop-Man’s yokelness, I warmed to him. A lot. And he turned out to be quite knowledgeable about Xeidan. He wasn’t all about the bogs.
It turned out that only the west coast of the country was boggy swampland. Beyond the swamp was a spine of very tall mountains, mountains that we were following north. Beyond those mountains (called creatively the Spine) was Xeidan proper; land that was rich and versatile – much like Mandaria. Travel by horse would have been easy and accessible on the far side of the Spine, and it was only my choice of landing point that dictated the need for hopping. Unfortunate.
Thinking back, the boat I travelled on was destined for the west coast and the rich pickings on that side of the country. But I insisted on landing at the First Foot, for nostalgic reasons. I wanted to see the place. What a disappointment it was. No wonder it was never talked about in history books.
And this strange dichotomous terrain was actually due to a really very strange phenomenon. The west coast of the island was slowly sinking, chunks being taken from the old and fertile grasslands, and the east coast was rising. Some geologists claimed that bog-land would one day be a rich place of agriculture and population. Not today. It is a land that demands hopping.
But Hop-Man was more than just a geography teacher. He was a historian too. He taught me so very much about the incumbent masters of Xeidan, and the struggle with the Lady’s family. We spent one poignant evening discussing this very thing.
“What are the Hânto like?”
“How d’ya mean?”
“As rulers? I have been exposed to much of the Lord-Layers, but the Hânto are almost entirely divorced from Mandaria. They are an unknown quantity.”
Hop-Man shrugged. “They’re okay.”
“You have nothing more than that?”
“They don’ bother ‘emselves down this way. Keep ‘emselves to ‘emselves.”
“Surely as the ruling family, they must struggle to keep private lives.”
He looked to the heavens, hand on his chin. Thinking. Hop-Man did thinking!
Then he looked deep in my eyes. “They don’ rule. They gather.”
“They gather. They take. I ‘ear in many towns they take twenty percent. Those tha’ don’ pay get trampled by the cons… Constab…”
“Aye.” That sounded remarkably tyrannous.
“How are they able to get away with this?”
He shrugged. “We ain’t fighting people. Fer the first years when they landed, things were good. The cannibals were here too, and they cleansed the land. Some traders even started landing on t’west coast and setup small tradin’ towns. Things were good.”
“And what happened?”
“The Mallahn were wiped and the Hânto ruled. They’ve bin taking ever since.”
“And how long can that last?”
He shrugged. “Fifty years ‘n’ the place will rot.”
“What?” He shrugged again. “Why are the people not revolting?”
“Not the fightin’ type. Ye’ve seen Shietz. We’re simple contented people.”
“But…” It was hard to argue with that. “Would you not appreciate a more progressive nation?”
“As I said, things go’ better. Then worse.”
“And what happened to the Mallahn?”
“Wiped. The Northern Isle is a toxic place, and they dared step there. They were wiped.”
“Why did the Hânto not take damage?”
“Held back. Most think they knew what was there, and sent the Mallahn anyway. Tha’s where the animosity stems from. Ever since the Mallahn was wiped, the Hânto have been takin’ takin’ takin’.”
This really was startling. Not much came out of the First Fist, and it was never well explained why that was the case. When the Hânto did come to Mandaria, they were dripping in wealth and had a troop of greenwoods in tow. They were obsessed with creating something to rival the Order of the Root, but had thus far failed. The greenwoods were not well respected.
The wealth they dripped seemed to stink of progress, and yet here it was, from Hop-Man’s mouth. The opposite. They were leaching the land. I needed to see this for myself.
“What is on the Northern Isle?”
“Cannibals, they say, but lots of ‘em. And somethin’ called the Yellow Feral. It sweeps the island one a year ‘n’ sends many of the natives boilin’ into the water. There’s a permanent station of guards along the coast t’ensure sure any make the swim are slaughtered. T’is the only public service the Hânto gift.”
But all things come to an end, however enlightening, and after twenty-seven days we arrive at Allazon at twilight. It is little more than a large town, but I am delighted to see it. So very delighted.
There are cobbles beneath my feet, and the feel of them is incredible. So solid. There are two-storey buildings either side of me, well-kept faces to them, and my heart skips. There is the smell of food from inns, the merriment of good drink, and the civility of torches lining the modest avenue. I have finally reached civilisation.
And I miss the stars already. They are there, but the whole display is flatter. And I already loathe the smell of waste – the stench of humanity packed in. Such a disappointment.
“Thank you. Your services have been greatly received.”
“Yip.” He held out a hand for the tip, and it would have been churlish to refuse. After all, I couldn’t even remember his proper name! I turned and walked into town.
And I now find myself something akin to lost. I am sat in my rooms in a modest inn on the coastal side of town. I have some wine which I will surely chomp my way through, but I am not feeling the revelry. Do you know what it is that is causing such confusion? It took me all evening to work it out, but this is it.
Purpose. What is my purpose?
Of course, I started out with the intention of exploring all the lands of Society, and in that I am making some progress. Good progress. But the blot to which I was originally working is now a long way away, and I find myself with all my documents since my time in Mallis in my possession. Hardly a blot at all.
You will also now know that I am running. Well, you would know if I’d posted the blot on that great wall in the square in Callij, but all that is still on my person. But I am running, and running from a debt that I cannot meet and even my father would struggle with. But the Lady has sorted this. For now.
And then there is the third thread. Uncover details of the phenomenon called shaping. That is the hardest of them all, and I have no idea where to start. I targeted civilisation in order to firm up my chances, and here I am. Allazon is a decent place to start.
So, after a bottle of wine and a headache, I am resolved. This is what I will do:
- Scour Allazon for what I can find about shaping. I’m not expecting lots.
- Get my thoughts down and post all my backlog of blots to Callij.
I am growing to relish a plan when they come into being.
The following morning, I venture into town. I have no idea what I’m looking for, but the library seems as good a place as any.
“Excuse me good sir. Could you direct me to the public vaults of Allazon?”
“The public vaults. Library. You know?”
“I know what public vaults are. What’s Allazon?” Was this grocer really so special?
“Is this town called Allazon?”
“Only to barbarians, and barbarians aren’t welcome round here.” He smashed a fist into a palm.
“Then what do you call it?”
I nodded and smiled. A beating was not in my plan. Eventually I soothed him by purchasing an apple, and he pointed me to the library.
But what was with that? Was Hop-Man a barbarian? Yokel maybe, but not a barbarian. That was very strange indeed.
I reached the library by late morning, but there was also a delicious looking eatery on the opposite side of the street. My stomach rumbled. I went into the library and walked right up to the clerk, locking him with my most amenable gaze.
“Good morning, sir.” He looked up and stayed silent. “May I make a brief enquiry.”
“I am about to go over the street for some food, and I wondered if you could expedite my request while I am over there.”
“You’re not from round here, are you?”
I shook my head. “Can you help?”
He sighed. “How?”
“I was hoping you would be able to pull together a list of research references while I am feeding. It would be good to start searching in appropriate places.”
“And what are you researching?”
I gulped. “It is a rather sensitive subject. The history of the ruling families of Mandaria is the broad subject.”
“Half the vault is about that subject. Be more specific.”
“Ah…” Could I mention the word itself? My stomach rumbled and the smell wafted. Delicious. “I am researching the lost art of shaping.”
He raised an eyebrow and smiled. Now I think about it, that was his first smile. “Consider it done.”
Nearer to midday I sat at a table outside the restaurant, enjoying a warm morning. The food really was excellent. Really excellent. Lots of shell-fish and breaded produce, all washed down with a fine ale. Delicious.
I turned and there, coming down the street, was the constabulary. The clerk was on the steps to the vaults, pointing at me. Incriminating me. Being who I am, I was so socked that I just sat there. The constabulary arrived and ripped me from my seat, dragging me to the cells. My head was swimming, and I glared at the clerk. He wore that same sick smile.
So here I am, in a cell. Running was never a strong-point for me. I am writing, and it is even more desperate now than it ever was. But I am still writing.
And if one good thing came from this whole affair, my fine meal ended up being free of charge. That was the last decent meal I will be having in some time.