The Expedition is a novelette by Scot Noel presented in 4 parts.
This Posting is Chapter One, A Scribe Loses His Warm Bed
The air is clear here, scented with cold from the peaks to the north, peaks which rise to become an impossible wall of blue and snow streaked white. No clouds dare touch them. I’m watching those mountains now, through air dancing up from the fire. It takes with it bits of ash. Now and then go the larger, darkened curls of a page or two. My hands are numb as I rip apart these journals. My lips are cold. Only my leg seems on fire, broken twice before they found us. The pain brings out words so strong they frighten our rescuers when they come.
These hill people cannot help me leave. Not one of them will ever leave here. I guess it is enough that they smile and whisper their concerns on the wind, enough that they know the ritual and built me this fire.
The pages don’t want to leave my fingers anymore.
It is an old, old way of things, to honor the dead with prayers sent heavenward on the wings of flame. At times, in anticipation of this moment, the dying have been known to write their own prayers and give them to their kin to burn. In a sense, these journals have become the prayers of kin I never knew I had, until now.
If I do not die and my leg heals, I will have to face those mountains on my own.
Here is a prayer the freewitch wrote, and one from the old man, both unknowing of the things to come.
What my spell tore from the beast proved a glimmer, a ghost coiled and bleeding in my hands.
As I might take the spirit of a bear and impart its courage into a scepter or blade, I had grasped the soul of a creature no Mulaghal could name.
Not my fault that the beast aroused before we could finish. As if suddenly aware of my theft and missing its inner ghost, it scattered us with a howl. When Rimmer came to my side, I forced what I could of the spirit into the margins of his upheld blade. Thereafter he rushed forward to protect me… To protect me!
The tactics of the beast became clear when our swordsman stood to the defense. A multitude of segmented arms encompassed his attack and seemed unconscious of his weapon’s edge. Though the sword severed many limbs and others ran freely with blood, those remaining moved more swiftly.
The blade splintered and fell. After that, the many arms did not recognize our swordsman’s strength. In their numbers they toppled the man and pulled him upwards by his feet. A warrior of 17 stone taken up like a doll; a man who could fell an ox handled so simply!
But this is not the story of our encounter with the Auran Dragon. Everything we met, alive or dead, was bigger than we were. The dragon only makes a point. Until then Emmerich believed the expedition a success, and Loissa hoped to sell her enchanted swords. Good Hilgwene dreamt of a husband, and Uzzel believed his son might one day succeed him. Some of us meant to acquire wealth, others to gain fame. A few had no choice in the journey, such as me. It was an expedition, and from the beginning the story has rested in my hands, for I was tasked to write it.
My name is Yasunari Gatewa, Yasu for short, and though I feel older now, I have barely made my majority.
Roald Emmerich, the old man, found me in Chora Kami, a university established by the Mulaghals near the city of Bethede Tai. Though Tai lies at the edge of the Conquests, where the rivers Akzeb and Agra join, the name of Emmerich was not unknown to us.
Rouse me from my blankets to gaze northward, before midmorning clouds obscure the direction entirely, and I would describe a scene of uninviting, snow capped peaks. The stony cold brow of the world. “Beyond here wait demons,” goes the common wisdom, and “a thousand ways to die.”
As for Emmerich, he saw what a general must see when his army at last outweighs by ten thousand the lesser host before it. Victory and glory were his constant mental companions, and as for any possibility of failure, he had assurances against such in writing: a grizzled bit of parchment called a map, a long-buried cartographer’s record. It laid out passes through the mountains unknown to modern man.
Once more, the Old Man could not have picked a worse spot for camp. Had my horse led me here out of a drenching rain, I would cut her throat, then burn her carcass out of embarrassment and to warn away wolves.
“Time for you to leave.”
By the time the Prior’s voice pierced my brain, he had me on my feet. I felt the loss of my cot as other men might feel the loss of an arm. And my head was greatly pained by the weight of light that fell upon it.
“Prior, forgive me,” the words stumbled out. “I’m not feeling well.”
“Yes, Yasu, but it is time for you to leave.”
He was so calm, so strong, I did not know what to do. My thoughts were like morning oats, bubbling and splashing from too much heat.
“I didn’t take Brother Ada’s coin,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Of course, Yasu. Where are your boots?”
While the Prior held me with one hand, he began to fill my traveling bag with the other.
“Or, I did, but the girl in the market… Prior, I believe she’s a temptress. She tricked me for the coin. Made me drink a brew; I don’t know what… what it was.”
“Yes, Yasu.” Again, the voice was calm. I had never seen the Prior less angry, or more determined. All I could think to do was count on the Prior’s good nature, and his possible amusement at my confession.
“Well, I mean I knew it was… Mulaghal rum. You understand, Prior, after the essays, I felt. I felt. Well, I failed to finish.”
For a moment, the Prior stopped his hurried preparations to weigh his calm blue eyes directly against mine. “Yasu, you never attended the testing. You never began the essays.”
“Yes, well, what I meant to say was…”
“It is time for you to leave.”
And that is how they decided to give me up to Emmerich, for in his care they saw a better place for me than behind the desks of their staid university.
The idea of publishing came to Emmerich via a happy accident. It seems clerics in Ottam, copying a journal for him, found a buyer for additional facsimiles. This could have meant little. But our new rulers, having swept into power from the east more than a quarter century before, had by now begun to change the habits of the people.
Of their subjects, the Mulaghals demanded literacy, and one consequence of this fixation was the growing sale of books. Reading was on its way to becoming fashionable. It made the poorest among us feel immeasurably important and connected to great events. It inspired my father to pack me off to school, for he had seen his brother’s daughter gain a position with the Mulaghal after acquiring the habit of books.
On this trip, Emmerich had decided to keep not only his own journal, but to hire a wordsmith. In fact, every member of the expedition would record his or her own thoughts, as best they were able.
The purpose of my employment was manifold. I would keep my own record, but also assure the refinement of each “voice” in the troupe. I was to polish Emmerich’s prose and, upon our return, to bind these disparate records into one colorful tale. A writer was needed, yes, but not one of note. The reputation of the scribbler could not overshadow Emmerich’s own. And it is certain that I, Yasu, have never been accused of overshadowing anyone.
Do not think, therefore, that I pursued this adventure. Before we began, my highest ambition was to visit the whores of Dark Belgia, a goal toward which I expended more imagination than effort. But never had I thought that by petty thievery, avoidance of work, and mere drunkenness could I lose my comfortable position.
I have replaced the scribe who died before Ottam, but not with entire satisfaction. The boy seems able enough, but I am unsure of his commitment to the expedition. Of his talent, I have seen examples, but all of a rather amorous nature, even bawdy. Unusual for a disciple of Chora Chami. The Prior assures me that he has a debt of some sort to pay and will do me well for the sake of his father. We shall see.
At this, the end of our first day, my expedition takes its evening break in a spot I selected personally, one sheltered by stones and secure from thieves and wild animals on all sides.
Once more, the Old Man could not have picked a worse spot for camp. Had my horse led me here out of a drenching rain, I would cut her throat, then burn her carcass out of embarrassment and to warn away wolves. From the first, Emmerich has shown a fondness for cul-de-sacs. Down the center of this one runs a stream fed by a waterfall, so that we are to be drenched and made miserable by the mist. Wood will not burn here, and we are reduced to the chill of salted beef for our fare.
The presence of the witch has all on edge, as she calls on the dark gods for her own comfort and spares none of her power to ease our suffering.
Today they called Loissa the devil’s whore. Mean words against any woman. It rubs them that she eats alone, but how to explain to cowherds the ways of a witch?
They fault her clothes. She wears yaltha hide boots, jackets, and leggings, purchased from Mulaghal outposts in the far south. Fine stuff. Because she wears half the weight of furs they must, they gossip that evil warms her. They are fools.
For most, the journals became a way to map their desires, a place to write their wishes to the gods, as in that ceremony, still honored under the Mulaghal, where prayers and petitions are penned by a scribe, then sent to heaven in the flames of an altar. And so Loissa wrote of the blades with which she had weighted down her mules, of her plan to wield a spell she had practiced for many months.
Her journal admirably plots the path to her success, of how profit from these enchanted weapons would change her life. It says nothing of the swordsman, Rimmer, who sought to change Loissa’s life in a different way, starting with every bow and courtesy he could provide. If the Freewitch was aware of this devotion, she showed no sign.
In his own record, Roald Emmerich goes on about our party of adventurous souls, of how carefully he picked each of us, chose us for our skills, experience, and courage. Little of it is true. Of this I’m certain, that Emmerich hoped a cross-section of wanderers would fire the imagination of the populace and sell more books. He is a player who has found, in publication, the perfect stage, and as the light shines bright upon him, he fears only that it must one day go out.
And what of Yasu? Of my own tale? As I look back, I see a distracted muddle of emotions, with no single affect standing out to dominate and give focus to my story Mainly I pitied myself and mourned the loss of my warm bed and comfortable conditions.
My throat ached from the lack of rum, and rocks do not a fine cot make. I would have run but for the Prior’s parting threat. For promises unfulfilled, he would take my father’s farm. My sire would sell his last goat to ease my way at the University. In fact, I think he had. For the rest, I was to repay my debts upon reaching an elevated station, the likes of which seemed father away now than ever before.
Was the journey meant to make of me a man? Instead I cursed the power of the cold and the rocks to stiffen and bruise me. I complained about our meals, damning all trail food (after which our cook took the trouble to scorch, burn, and sour anything that was to pass my lips). Nor would she open her journal the slightest crack for my review. It became a game to which the others became silently complicit. Even my complaints to the Old Man brought the woman no rebuke. In Emmerich’s snow burned face, my words seemed a source of merriment.
If I was delighted by anything, it was that my farm-trained limbs, though lately unused to such exertions, soon remembered their old strength. My breath took longer to return, and Cassan Di Bucentar allowed me a spell beside him in the saddle. His was the only true riding animal we had, and I should be ashamed to say the only other person to whom he bestowed this honor was our beautiful Loissa, the Freewitch. Perhaps I could have ridden in the cook’s wagon, if she had not hated me so in those early days.
Those were my true thoughts; far from the romance the Old Man had me commit to paper. Where my quill scratched its ink into tight, cursive scrolls along the page, the reader sees only a merry sun that banished our melancholy spirits and takes in with us the brisk mountain air that stole away all our doubts.
Day after day, we pushed on toward the treasures Emmerich’s map held in store. Of course, working from the back of my journal, and using a very fine script to conserve space, I kept a record truer than all the rest.
We have made it through the passes, all of us. For a while I hoped we would not. If someone were injured, or if we ran out of food, certainly Emmerich would have to give up. We could turn back, and I would sleep in a bed again. But they all seem to know what they have signed up for, and a smirk or a smile is all I get when I give voice to my pains.
In the week we have spent climbing down from the fog and ice, the weather has grown warm again. Trees of such a nature they rise only to my chest have begun to appear, thick with delicate and diminutive leaves.
I have seen swept winged birds soaring here in the brilliant sun, and our wagon wheels once disturbed a mole heap, accidentally opening its labyrinth of galleries. These were the marvels that held our attention and breathed into us a new life; as though we winter-bound souls had at last journeyed into spring.
In my travels, I have seen a wave twenty times the height of a man. Had our captain not been able to make our vessel ride with its power, we would have been driven into darkness. Until today, I have seen nothing formed by man match the power of that sea. Yet today…
Rising from the floor of the valley are spires of stone, five towers bold enough to wear the mountains about them as a cloak. Joining each, one to the next, is a wall. The wall itself would fortify the grandest city of the Mulaghal, yet this seems no place of habitation. It is a curiosity that such a thing could exist so close to Bethede Tai and yet go unvisited for all our recorded history.
Emmerich at last confided in us. He calls this an Auran portal, a place once at the crossroads of civilization. From the heights we noted the interior has gone wild with trees, water, and foliage. A portion of one tower collapsed in some long forgotten shifting of the earth.
The place is dead now, a spectacle that says to us “here stood the power you dream the gods possess.” It is gone now, as all power and all things of man must follow in time.
Certainly, what we and our kind have built will one day too be ruins and the haunt of bats and scurrying things.
A day of hard travel brought us not half around the outer walls. The seamless, oyster-colored stone intrigues the eye. There are gateways at regular intervals, but these remain tightly sealed. No road leads to them, and though their shape gives the appearance of entryways, neither handle nor hinge can be detected. Even the ground quake that damaged the tower left but a few spidery cracks at its base.
If the tendrils I have seen coiling at the base of one gateway proves an example of what lies within, then Emmerich is correct, and this structure is more than an architect’s dream.
It is a gateway to other worlds.
A day came when I found myself humbled by my own appetites. After weeks of hard travel, I had come to admit the cook knew a stubbornness to which I could only aspire. While she had never poisoned, nor adulterated my food in any cruel fashion, I knew with each meal that my earlier insults had not gone unanswered. On this day, my stomach pained me when it learned of cob-apple pies simmering in our small, wood-fired oven. Our cook, Hilgwene Sela, had fussed for some time over the oven, which had been situated on the lowered gate of her wagon for the day. At last, when she removed the first golden treasure, my will to pigheadedness fled as swiftly as courage before the sword.
I took the only course I knew; I went to gather flowers. Then I waited for Rimmer to lead the wagon burros off to a nearby stream. With the rest of our crew examining the Auran wall or foraging for supplies, Hilgwene was alone. I approached cautiously.
They’s nice,” she said, suppressing a smile as I presented the bouquet.
“Good Hilgwene,” I said, bowing, “I found these near the first gate we passed this morning. You see how the little ones catch the light, like a rainbow. It matches the spirit in your eyes.” At this she laughed, slapping her sides so that flour dust rose to make a halo about her corn-silk hair.
She gave a sidelong glance to the flowers, and then looked at me with a question in her eyes. “You’re not coming as a suitor, are you Mr. Sleepyhead?” She took another moment to think, making me rather uncomfortable; as I had still not found a good segue to the subject of the pies. “You apologize for your words. It is better if you will do a favor.”
“Favor?” I said, my voice catching in my throat.
“It is the words,” she said, making a scribbling motion in the air. Seeing my confusion, she stepped into closeness with me, as if about to confess, her eyes glancing down to hide a shame I had not expected. “I have no words to write. I told Mr. Emmerich I did, but… One day, I would wish a son, or a daughter, to read what we have seen… to read my words.”
I’m certain I smiled, but what I remember most is a sidelong, yearning glance toward one of the pies, now but a handbreadth away on the wagon gate and cooled for eating. She had made these delicacies to celebrate our success in finding the Auran site.
“Children?” I asked impulsively, my attention returning to Hilgwene. “But dear Hilgwene, you do not even have a husband.” I blushed even as I spoke.
“Oh, Mr. Sleepyhead, I am not much, I know. But my share will be enough. A dowry. Mr. Emmerich wants to find great things. I want… I want…” She did not finish the words, as if anything said would make her dream sound foolish.
“You cannot write at all?” I asked.
“I know my letters, and I spell good,” Hilgwene assured me. “But to write a name, or a trading list; it is not the same.”
“I understand. And my name is Yasu. I will help you with the words. Each evening, after the last meal.” Hilgwene’s feet moved nervously, and her head seemed to nod toward them, bobbing in assent. “Good Hilgwene, it will take some time before you can write measurably well. Beside your lessons, if you tell me what you want to say to your future children, I will put it down for you, so nothing is lost.”
This thought seemed to delight her too, somewhat beyond words, so that we stood there in an embarrassing silence.
“Now,” I plunged forward to break the spell, “can I have some of that pie?”
As I bit into my portion of the treasure, with cob-apple juice running warmly down my chin, I found that Hilgwene was not so plain a woman after all, but rather sturdy and genial, as filled with joys of life as was her pie. For a moment, I might have seen her eyes sparkle along with the flowers.
I was enjoying the last bit of sugary crust and gathering up the courage to inquire about a draught of rum when Cassan di Bucentar al Maggiore de Uruk-Asume came riding hard from around the curve of the Auran wall.
“I’ve found it!” he proclaimed boldly, so that even Rimmer and the burros must have heard him. “A way in!”
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