The Expedition is a novelette by Scot Noel presented in 4 parts.
This Posting is Chapter Two, Breaching the Wall
At first the wall proved an impossible barrier. Its surface offered no hold, nor did the towers show a single knob or projection we might encircle with our ropes. With fierce concentration, our Freewitch was able to lift a hook over the wall, but the grapple found no purchase on the other side.
At last our scout found the way. Following a stream to its origin, he saw the waters performing a feat no army could have managed. Century upon century of water had cut earth and stone deeply here. It had breached the wall from the inside, eating away a channel beneath one of the Auran gates.
Now we are eight, half-drowned and without the means to make fire. Yet I have no harsh words for Emmerich. He has led us to glory.
To enter the walls, we swam, leaving behind over half the group, and my mount. The rest have been ordered to keep the camp ready against our return. ‘Tend my horse well,’ I told them, for they shall know a fierce beating otherwise.
Besides myself, Emmerich pulled through, and the swordsman. The Theorist dragged his screaming son along, but the water soon muffled the boy’s cries. The witch lost some of her finery in the struggle, and the monk who knows words proved he is not a woman after all. Yasu braved the waters and brought the cook and some of her supplies through with him. Altogether we lost one sack of biscuits and a fire kit. The leather wrappings of the rest proved sound against the water.
Imagine a coliseum with seats and benches sweeping upward to heights no Mulaghal can build, while before them lies a stage vast as an open plain. From one side, the opposing wall seems distant, obscured by haze. The plain itself is a foundation for smaller amphitheatres and circular tracks. There are crystal domes that, from the encircling seats, appear to magnify what lies within.
From above, the towers catch the wind and fashion from it a kind of music or a series of muted chimes. It is a sound we did not know beyond the walls.
There are sculptures of some astonishment. Human, yes, but these seem the models of which we are but shadows. To say they have grace beggars them.
The source of our benefactor, the stream, lies within. At the center of this great encirclement is a fountain. It must have been glorious in its youth, for a mile of stone buttresses and walkways encircle the fount. At its center a geyser of steam and spray rises at intervals to scare away the circling hawks. The water easily overtakes its barriers and channels, scoring a path toward the gateway by which we entered, and beneath which it has etched its own path. Uzzel believes the same tremor that damaged the tower altered the power of this natural spring, giving it a strength the Auran did not know in their day.
Of course, it is in my imagination I see the early glories. All around, trees and growing things have taken wild to this sheltered place. Their variety is enough to confuse the eye, and at places joins to become a tangle, tyranny of shadows. There are heaps of moldering things. A row of what appears to have been small shops with tables, banner poles, fences, and supply carts is now given over to decay and verdigris. Only the oyster-colored stone defies time.
What I ill understood was this: that the portals, even in their prime, did not remain open always, but fluctuated according to an intricate timetable.
“Melcur Albata,” I said, pointing to a stocky branch punctuated with thorns about one side and bristles on the other. “And this is Keleor, or ‘shearwater’ as we call it back home. Now, Nathe, this one with the broad leaves, how is it different?”
I could see he was hesitant to take the challenge, as always, but the boy nonetheless roused himself to examine the plant more closely.
“I’ve never seen this before.”
“That is the point,” I replied, encouraging the boy’s curiosity.
“Ah, it burns!” he whined, after turning it over an over in his fingers. The others laughed at his childishness.
I dropped the plant and they laughed.
“Like Cipra Istablar,” I heard myself saying, too late. “A stinging oil to keep away birds.” I could hear my father’s sigh above the laughter.
“Cipra Atablar,” he corrected. “But you’ve missed the difference.” He said the words as if I were an embarrassment to him. “These leaves have welts, and inside them, seeds are forming. Nothing we know propagates in such a fashion.”
“I had but a second to look,” I said in my defense.
“Sometimes a second is all you have, boy. Ahh, what is to happen when I die,” he asked, his voice growing loud, “and you my successor?”
I know my cheeks became redder than fire.
“Well, never mind,” he finished. “I’m not dead yet.”
The laugher stopped after that and my heart with it.
We saw them at dawn. Rounded, floating shapes. They proved at ease in the stillness, agile as flashing swords. None of us called them birds.
They focused on certain trees, on a kind of berry difficult to reach. The floaters bobbed and maneuvered, their long tongues dancing in the sun.
Encouraged by the Theorist, I brought one of the floaters down. It was an effort and I saw Loissa smile. We heard the thing burst as I caught it with my blade, like a pitcher of grog knocked to the floor. The rest scattered in an instant, like a school of hunted fish.
I reached the fallen creature ahead of my father, before its last wriggle. The eyes startled me. As big as my own, they blinked and turned, frightened. I almost stopped, but I could hear my father coming.
Rimmer’s dagger was in its belly, so I took it. I opened the thing as quickly as I could. It gasped and must have been in pain, for the eyes rolled back and disappeared.
I believe these creatures rise by creating, within their bodies, a buoyant gas. Hyroeloin, or is Heliobren? The lifting gas must be kept safely within and replenished only as it decays. When wishing to turn about, they spurt jets of their own breath from valves spaced along the body.
I was rewarded for my quickness with a look at various organs in operation. I will sketch heart, lungs, and the food canal from memory. There is no such creature known in the world, nor is it related in any way to that which lives in our skies. I understand now what my father and Emmerich have been saying.
This place was once a crossroads, a meeting place, a gathering for the inhabitants of many worlds. As the Mulaghal rule from icy north to icy south, so the Auran once commanded an empire we can scarcely imagine. It spanned a breadth of foreign planes, of spheres beyond the one into which we were born.
That is why there are no roads connecting this place to other cities. The gates about the perimeter are not physical portals at all and were never meant to be opened from outside! Their form, set into the walls, is but a convention. Their reality is this: that they are thresholds joining our world to other Auran sites. Once crowds flocked through them to meet here and, afterward, to return to their alien spheres.
Most of the portals are dead. We have examined several, including the one breached by the stream. Yet there is evidence that some gates work their magic still. The floaters are a sign of it: that ingress and egress of some degree remains possible.
Now I see why the freewitch has been employed. Oh, how it pains the theorist to be in competition with a witch, but that is nonetheless his situation. Emmerich has assigned both Loissa and Uzzel to find the working gateways, she by her magic and he by his science. He by careful observation of plant growth and seed dispersal, she by sensing the flux of the magic ether that a freewitch can scent on the wind. As for the rest of us, we follow the floaters.
Loissa discovered a working portal, and Uzzel did the same. Their methods brought them to separate locations within hours of one another, but the portal we dared was yet a third. And this is how I found it. With so many magical and scientific preparations underway, I began a survey of my own. My duties as an editor were slim now, as the writing of the entire troupe had improved greatly with practice, and few beside Emmerich allowed me to see all that they had written.
The wall encircled us. The gateways lay evenly spaced about it. Many proved hidden by growth and fallen stone blocked others, but there was no mystery to locating a portal. A little climbing and rough work through the brush took me from one to the next at such speed I should have seen them all by the third night.
What I ill understood was this: that the portals, even in their prime, did not remain open always, but fluctuated according to an intricate timetable. It was therefore not surprising I could dash my boot against the surface of any given archway without effect or magical result. The same smooth stone, a moment later, might have opened up and sent me boot first into another world.
Nevertheless, the schedule put in place by the Auran had long since come to ruin. What gateways worked now did so at irregular intervals and at times revealed their openings for a heartbeat, no more. In a sense, the gateways seemed like dying candles, their flames flickering into brightness for a moment, then guttering, taking a long hard time to die before joining the darkness of the night. Still, with Uzzel, Loissa, and the others all searching, I was lucky, for the one I found proved the most stable of the three.
Yasu found the door.
I did not like Mr. Sleepyhead when we started. I thought him bad mouthed. Too smart and too lazy. But he was… a bear leaving its winter bed. Bad tempered when it wakes.
His eyes are not like mine, but his words are kind.
I recall little of our first day through the gateway. That is, the details I remember are bound up in a single event. Our cook, Hilgwene, touched me before we stepped through the gate. For a simple woman, it seemed remarkable. She drew me close and touched her lips to mine in a way that became a promise I could not ignore.
Whatever Hilgwene’s reasons, in the end I proved no gentleman in return. She had opened an opportunity, a gateway of her own. My fantasies about Loissa vanished, not out of some growing romance for Hilgwene, but because the former was unreachable, and the latter was not.
I knew of the scribe’s fondness for rum from the start. ‘Twas my fondness for the scribe that proved uncertain. He is without discipline. Soft as rain. Fierce as a hare. Only two things have surprised me. First, that I found no need to bring him back across my saddle, as the hare has not run. Second that he has brought us to a world beyond the compass of man and Mulaghal. Whether through luck or a growing strength of will, Yasu has done well. His eyes brightened noticeably when I brought forth the rum. Yet even as the bottle touched his lips, his thoughts seemed elsewhere,
All that day in the new world, walking with our small group toward something they had spied in the distance, I made and remade the plans by which I would seduce Hilgwene.
Such were the arguments I made, over and over, reinforcing in my mind the course I would try. So completely did I give myself up to the possibility, I doubt a single tender thought crept in. Neither honor nor good intent was mine. It was as if a dam had opened up, some bulwark behind which all my dark aspirations waited, and suddenly it had given way.
After stepping through the gateway, we found behind us a crescent wall, itself studded with a dozen identical portals. The crescent was low, built into a hillside, and it opened upon a series of roadways radiating outward from the crescent. These roads went on at such length most disappeared from sight before any other handiwork interrupted their path. Except for one. Along the road that lay directly before our portal, a series of spires could be seen rising in the distance, no more than a day’s walk before us.
I ordered our small troop to scout two nearby hills. We needed height, and to gain from it a sense of location. The world we had entered dazed us with hues and patterns of light that proved wholly unfamiliar. The sounds. The smells. Even the feel of our steps varied to such an extent that at first, we found it difficult to stay upright. Those with old sea legs soon fared the best. The total effect upon our bodies was such that, for a time we wandered helpless, as if in a dream, our senses useless to make it all intelligible.
From the hills we could see outcroppings of rock and more towns in the distance, but the nearer structures held our gaze. We could make out domes and ancient obelisks. There were broad roads and bridges that seemed to have been left empty since the beginning of time.
Herds of floaters skimmed the slopes. These were akin to the one Rimmer had brought down, but the smallest here might have lifted a burro. From the floating mob arose a sound, not unlike the chimes employed by the temples of the Mulaghal. They filled the air with music even as they lowered from their wide mouths a many-branched, draping tongue. By use of this translucent appendage, they scoured the ground for food.
Today I shall teach Yasu to hunt. We have reached the outskirts of the city. It will require all our strength to haunt its empty streets and corridors. Therefore, tonight we eat.
On the hills, the Theorist has found long stalks coiled about the sunward slopes. We have no sense of them, other than that they burn well under Loissa’s conjuring. They could be floater dung for all I know, yet their fire keeps us warm and will make a fine spit for meat.
As for the scribe, it seems he has learned another manly art. The boy dared the cook’s bed and did a fine job of it from what I heard in passing. It was my watch, and though they sought one another beyond the comfort of the fire, any strange noise will bring me out.
By first light both were back at camp. The cook has a sullen look, and Yasu seems to have taken a scolding from some unexpected quarter.
My night with Hilgwene left me sorely tried. Other than my success, nothing played out as it had in my imagination, nor as I have seen it portrayed in books, those salacious handbooks that describe practices my father never confessed to me.
Now I had to laugh. I began to see how much these manuals resembled my own record of this very expedition: all grandeur and no hardship! Their words, like mine, wanted attention more than truth.
Adding to my confusion was the respect with which Rimmer and Cassan treated me afterward. How they realized what adventure I had undertaken, I don’t wish to comprehend. All I know is that their view of me struck a false note, as I deserved no esteem. My true feelings were that, in some way, I had overreached. My only motivation was a kind of greed.
In taking Hilgwene, I thought only of what I deserved, what I should have, and what might soothe my troubles. The cook was nothing. She became less than the woman I had helped and was quickly relegated to the role of something possessed, an object conquered.
As we came together, I used whatever words of comfort and flattery might set her at ease. My skill was rewarded with kisses and soft embraces, yet the mercenary reality of my thoughts was this: that even though she was no beauty, the darkness would do its part and my imagination the rest. In my mind I made of Hilgwene nothing more than a whore of dark Belgia. When I entered her, she tried to please me. I know she wanted to, but there was no practiced ease to what we did. I pressed on with great energy, but toward the goal my imagination promised, not the one offered by the moment. When the prize came, I pushed away from her, unbelieving that all could have been for so little reward. My breathing, now heavy in my lungs, along with my confusion held a greater energy than what had passed between us.
Of course, I said something cruel, blaming her in that moment for a lack of charms. My kind words were nowhere to be found. And while I could not see Hilgwene, neither her eyes nor her form, her touch lay close upon me, and through it I knew a trembling that shook me to my soul.
Before the hunt, I had the opportunity of a word with the freewitch. Aside from Hilgwene, she is the only female among us, and I charged her with looking closely upon the cook this day, and gently too. The young are impetuous, and thus have a talent for spoiling everything. That they have no concept of what they do is amusing, but that they are likely to misunderstand even what they have done is a cause of regrettable unhappiness.
And so I left Loissa with stern words to do her best and ordered Yasu and Nathe to keep close on my heels.
Yasu took well to the work. The abandon of running down the prey raised his spirit. It seemed to release some burden weighing heavily upon him, and he nearly burst his heart, so much effort did he put into the sport. The floaters proved quick as foxes. Though I could have taken one soon enough, I forbore and let another hour play out until the wordsmith caught one properly and brought it down.
Uzzel’s son too put up an effort, but the boy is no more agile than an avalanche. All his force goes in one direction, and he bruised himself sorely and wrenched an ankle before we were done. As is customary in such cases, Nathe offered to clean the kill, but I made an exception.
I ordered Yasu to gut the beast and prepare the meat, and as I was in no mood to be refused, he went along. A moan and a grumble of discontent were all I allowed him, before my manner humbled him and the task itself went further in that direction. I wanted no ego remaining in the lad about his doings with the cook.
The moment I saw her flushed face and tear-bright eyes, I knew what he had done.
I am not the one to offer aid under these circumstances. What am I to tell the cook? That I know how she must feel?
Yasunari is a coward. I have seen his eyes on me, yet there is in him no strength to approach a woman of power. What he could not dare of me, he forced the cook to yield.
So, what shall I tell her, that each day the Rimmer tries his luck at having me? Let the swordsman carry my bags and desire what he will. For Rimmer, the bags will be all. For Yasu, there will yet be a reckoning.
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