Read an Excerpt
Chapter the First
How a Traveler Wishing for a Name
Met a Coachman Wishing for a Drink
And a Bargain Was Reached
It was on a Homeday in the early summer of the 156th year of the Interregnum that a traveler entered a small village in the East. This village was, we should say, far to the Eastfarther than any except the most intrepid of explorers have ventured, for it involves crossing the range of mountains that lie beyond the Laughing River, and descending, from there, into a land of myth, legend, and, if we are to be permitted, history. Knowing, as we do, that few of our readers will ever venture into these lands, we hope we may be permitted a moment to sketch the peculiar landscape that might greet the traveler who emerges from the narrow Grinding Pass between Mount Horsehead, also called Hookjaw Mountain, and the Broken Mountain, which may also have other names, although these have not come down to us.
In this place the traveler in his coach or the reader on his couch would find a gradually widening gorge or valley descending from the mountain in the place where a furious river had once run. The valley is as green and lush as one might expect from what had once been the bottom of a river, while above it stand ranks and rows of greyish rock, cut or molded into the strangest of formations, some standing two or even three hundred feet high, and many of them appearing almost manlike in their aspect. These are called by those who dwell in the valley the Guardians, and these Easterners, a peaceful agricultural tribe called Nemites, believe, in fact, that these rocks contain a sentience that watches over them. What is more significant, however, is that all of the neighbors of the Nemites, including the warlike Letites to the north and the fierce Straves to the south, also believe it, for which reason the Nemites have dwelt in this valley for years upon years without the least disturbance.
While phenomena such as strange and oddly beautiful rock formationscaused by we know not what fluke of wind, water, and earthmight well serve to protect these Easterners from others of their own kind, one could hardly expect them to do any good against the less superstitious human; especially those of the House of the Dragon who, after all, had dwellings not twenty leagues away, on the other side of the Broken Mountain. What, then, has protected the Nemites from the Dragonlords? Could it be that, in fact, they are correct in their beliefs concerning the formations of stone that seem to watch over them day and night? Perhaps. Yet it seems to us that the answer lies more in geography than in magical philosophy. The very existence of the Broken Mountain has served, for thousands of years, to shunt large groups to one side or another of the Nemite Valley, and both of its sides, or "flanks" to put it in the military terms of the House of the Dragon, are guarded by the very tribes who are filled with superstitious dread of the Guardians. In this way, one might say that the Guardians have, indeed, done exactly what the Nemites believe them to do.
The astute reader will have observed that we have explained why the valley is safe from the west, from the north, and from the south, and is, no doubt, furiously wondering what lies to the east. The author would like to assure the reader that we have not forgotten this cardinal direction, but intend to take him there directly; indeed, it is for the purpose of this easterly journey that we have introduced the Nemites who, though certainly of interest in and of themselves, form no part of our history.
To the east, then, is one of the more peculiar features of landscape to be found anywhere in the world. It is as if the gods who made the world had decreed that no one should be permitted to pass eastward from the land of the Nemites. To begin, the valley is sealed off by a sheer cliff of graniteto all appearances, a slab of rock nearly four thousand feet high, three miles wide, and running almost straight up. From its peak, it runs down to the east in a slope only slightly less sheer. How such an object could occur in the course of nature is a curiosity rivaled only by the Rising Waterfall of Cordania or the Steam Caves of Northern Suntra. But however imposing Man might consider this object, Nature, evidently, did not deem it sufficient, for beyond "the Rise," as the Nemites call it, is a land of bogs and mires, where what few dry patches exist are liable to turn into quicksands whenever the sudden and unpredictable rains visit the district. This useless, boggy area continues for several milesall the way, in fact, to Thundering Lake, or Lake Nivaper as some call it: that wide, blue, scenic, but terrifying lake, surrounded by harsh rocks and subject to the sort of weather that one might anticipate finding at sea, but should hardly expect to encounter in a freshwater lake, whatever its size.
The Thundering Lake dominates the region both physically and economically, and should the author indulge in a description of the various small kingdoms and independent villages that thrive or struggle along its shore the reader might well grow impatient, to the chagrin of the author, who prides himself on laconicity. Therefore, bowing to the reader's understandable desire to learn what there is in this region that bears upon our story, we focus our attention upon a village directly opposite the Lake from the the Rise. This is the village of Blackchapel.
Alas, little is known of the strange gods and demons who were once worshiped here by the heathen Easterners, but at some point, most likely around the middle of the Third Cycle, an enclosed altar was built to one or more of them, which became a center of prayer and commerce. In the opinion of this historian, the first chapel (there have been at least six) was probably erected to a fish god, because the district has thrived on fishing for as long as anyone can recall, and because certain markings in and around the altar could be interpreted as crude representations of primitive fishing gear.
Blackchapel, for most of its history, was a quiet little village. Indeed, the noted traveler Ustav of Leramont, one of the first human beings to visit, noted that a day spent in the village was, as he put it, "as exciting as watching two pieces of granite involved in a staring contest," and added, "I eagerly looked forward to my night's rest as a means of relieving my ennui."
We go back, then, to the 156th year of the Interregnumwhich is, we should add, nearly a hundred years before the rest of our tale beginswhen a young warlock came to this village, traveling from the south. He was remarkably tall for an Easterner, towering well over everyone he chanced to meet, and he was, moreover, thin of figure. He had dark hair and eyes, and was dressed simply in a black shirt, black trousers, and short brown cloak, and was equipped with a sword, a knife, and a small satchel which contained a heavier shirt, a longer cloak, and a change of underclothing. We should take a moment, before continuing to follow this young man, to say two words about the term "warlock." It is, as a translation from the Eastern boszorkány, simply the masculine form of the word for "skilled one" or "witch." But throughout various Eastern cultures, this word has acquired other meanings, as a young nobleman who grows in power gradually acquires additional lands, dwellings, and retainers. In some cultures, the word has come to mean "enemy." In others, "servant of dark powers." Yet in other places of the East it means stranger things, such as "man who dresses as a woman," or "traitor to one's lord," or even "man who knows the secrets of women," this latter indicating that among some Eastern cultures the practice of witchcraft is considered a woman's skill, although no other evidence has been found to support this belief.
In this case, however, when we call this traveler a warlock, we mean simply a man who has studied the heathen arts of Eastern witchcraft. In fact, though initiated into these arts, this young man had not progressed in them to any great degree, but, rather, had only recently come to the point where, according to the "school" of witchcraft practiced by this young man and his teachers, he had to undertake a journey and attempt to find a guide or a path into what the Easterners called the "spirit world." Upon the actual meaning of this term, if any, the author will not speculate, this being, after all, a work of history, not a treatise on magical philosophy or a study of primitive superstitions.
The young man had not, in fact, traveled far, his home was in the manor house of a minor noble not twenty miles away, so upon his arrival at Blackchapel, which he conceived as only the first leg of his journey, he was well rested and eager for whatever adventures might await him. We need hardly add that he did not anticipate these adventures, or, in fact, any other that might await him in Blackchapel; and yet, as the reader has no doubt surmised by the fact that we have taken it upon ourselves to make reference to this place, it chanced that he was incorrect.
The day having nearly reached evening when his feet brought him to Blackchapel, his first order of business was to procure lodgings for the night, which he set about doing in the simplest and most natural way: he made a polite greeting to the first Easterner he met, and inquired as to any inn that let rooms by the evenings, or of any persons who might take in strangers for a pecuniary consideration. As it turned out, however, the first Easterner he met was a certain man named Erik, who was unable to be of much help to him. This Easterner could be described, by any standards, as ignorant. In fact, he could be described as ignorant not only by any standards, but upon any subject. While everyone is, of course, ignorant upon some subject or another, Erik maintained his ignorance in any and every matter he came across, and even improved upon it when he could.
The traveler, then, spoke to this fellow, saying, "My good man, I wish you a pleasant day, and hope indeed you are finding it so."
Erik considered this for a moment, then said, "Well?"
"Well, there is a question I would wish to ask you, if it is no trouble: Do you know a place where a traveler such as myself might secure lodgings in this charming village?"
"Yes. That is, a place where I might spend the night, enjoying more or less of comfort."
"Ah, yes, I see. Well, I must consider this question."
"Yes, I understand that. You, then, consider the question, and I will wait while you do so."
"And you are right to wait," said Erik promptly, "for I have even now begun considering."
"And I," said the young warlock, "have begun waiting."
In the event, it seemed that the traveler had far more success in waiting than Erik had in considering; for his waiting was accomplished with considerable skillthat is, not a shift of feet nor a quiver of an eyebrow betrayed impatience, whereas, after the span of some ten or fifteen minutes had elapsed, the considering had yet to bear fruit. At the end of this time, Erik, still with a countenance that spoke of deep consideration, turned and wandered off. The traveler, initially startled by this action, at length concluded that the other had discovered an answer, and the traveler determined to follow Erik, who wandered through Blackchapel on some errand of his own, and at just about the time the traveler realized that Erik would not lead him to what he sought, he noticed, in a two-story stone bungalow* set back from the road, a small sign saying, "Let Rooms." Now, our friend the traveler could imagine no reason for anyone to put up a sign suggesting that others let rooms; but, to the left, he found it easy to imagine that someone who found calligraphy a chore might save himself the trouble of scripting out, "We have rooms to let," and might, indeed, shorten it to, "Let Rooms." The possibility that this was the case was so strong, in fact,that he immediately resolved to test it by entering the bungalow and inquiring. We need hardly add that this resolution was no sooner made than acted upon.
Entering, then, he found himself in a narrow, dingy room, lit only by a single candle, this candle being the sole occupant of a tiny, square table, the table being accompanied by a plain wooden chair, and the chair being occupied by a skinny, balding old Easterner, who looked up from under bushy eyebrows that were astonishingly black compared to the grey of what remained of his hair. Without saying a word, the Easterner waited for the traveler to speak. This the traveler did, and almost instantly, by pronouncing the words, "Have you, in fact, rooms to let?"
The old man stared up at the warlock for some few moments, as if startled by his exceptional height. The traveler was used to this, however, and merely waited for the inspection to be completed. Eventually it was, and the old man said, "You wish for a room for tonight?"
"You have said it exactly. So well, in fact, that I cannot improve upon it. I wish for a room for tonight."
"It chances that we do have one. Fourteen fennick for the night, which includes one meal and a bath."
"That does not sound too expensive, only"
"What is a fennick?"
"Ah. What currency have you?"
"I? I have the coinage of Esania."
"Well, that is perfectly good coinage, and in those coins, we would we ask nine pennies, and we will add a breakfast to make up the difference."
"I see. Yes, that is most fair, and I should be glad to take the room on those terms."
"Well then, young man, it is yours, for as long as you wish. Climb the stairs, and it is the doorway on the right."
The traveler carefully counted out nine pennies, then made his way up the stairs and, finding the room with no more trouble than one might suppose after hearing the simple directions, let himself into it. He looked around and noted with pleasure that the bedding appeared to have no holes through which straw could emerge, and that, moreover, the room possessed both a chair and a window. He set his satchel on the floor, and studied the view from the window. As there was little of interest to him, and less of interest to the reader, we will forbear to describe the scene upon which he looked, and merely follow him as he left his room in order to have, as he thought, a brief walk through the town before retiring for the evening and continuing his journey in the morning.
He came down the stairs, then, and turned up the narrow street to see if he might find a public house where he could take a glass of wine and meet a few of the local denizens. It took him some time to locate it, because it was a small house unadorned with any sign or indication of its nature, but at length he happened to notice that it was uncommonly busy for a simple home and asked a passerby, who confirmed his deduction.
Upon entering, the young warlock observed a single room, well lit by hanging lamps. There were a few hard wooden chairs scattered about, but most of the patrons were standing in groups of four or five drinking beer or wine. Discovering that he felt suddenly uncomfortable, the traveler made his way to a corner that appeared to be more-or-less deserted, and which, moreover, contained an unoccupied chair. This chair, we should say, was next to a small round table, which table contained a head full of dark, curly hair, which head was attached to a body that occupied the table's other chair. Presuming that this other individual was in no condition to object to company, the traveler at once seated himself, and set about considering how to acquire for himself something to drink.
Several moments passed, during which our friend became acclimated to the warmth of the room, and the atmosphere, in which humanity commingled with stale wine and the sweet harshness of burning tobacco leaves, inhaled for their mild euphoric effect by many of the patrons. Eventually, a portly woman carrying a tray full of glasses came by, and, before the young man could speak, set down before him a mug of wine that was so dark as to be almost black. He accepted it in the spirit of inquiry, and paid for it with a coin that the hostess looked at carefully before accepting. She hurried on, and he tasted the wine, finding it to be very dry and acidic. Though hardly a connoisseur, he did have something of a palate, and winced slightly at the taste.
"You should," said someone, "have asked for the reserve. It costs only a little more, and is not nearly so harsh, with a not unpleasant peppery aftertaste. Or, better yet, the brandy, which, while falling short of excellent, has the virtue of quickly causing the drinker to stop caring about such niceties as taste." We should explain that brandy is what the Easterners call that class of wine which is distilled after being fermented; that they have a special name for this drink may, indeed, give us several significant clues about the Eastern culture, but now would not be the time for this discussion, interesting though it might be.
It took the traveler a moment to identify the speaker, but eventually he realized that it was none other than his companion at the table, whom he had taken to be asleep. Though this individual had not moved, his eyes were open, and he gave no appearance of intoxication; nor did he slur his speech, though he spoke Olakiska, the language of the district, with an odd rhythm, rather like a horse about to jump an obstacle, then suddenly stopping and reconsidering the affair, and continuing in this manner throughout the length of the sentence.
Notwithstanding the odd speech, which meant only that the speaker was, like so many others, not native to the region, the traveler replied politely, saying, "I thank you for your advice, and will avail myself of it the next time our good hostess passes by."
"You are most welcome," said the other, still not moving. "Might I inquire as to your name?"
"You may, indeed, inquire, but, alas, I cannot tell you."
"How, you cannot tell me?"
"I'm afraid that I cannot."
"You will pardon me if I find that singular."
"Well," said the traveler, "there is an explanation."
"Ah, well, that is less astonishing. And will you give me this explanation?"
"Certainly, and this is it, then: I cannot tell you my name, because I am traveling to find it."
We should note that, during this entire conversation, our friend's companion had not stirred from his position of resting his head upon his arm, and his arm upon the table. Upon hearing this, however, he lifted his head, showing a trim mustache, a few strands of hair upon a strong chin, a thin, narrow face with deep-set eyes, and a small mouth, all of which were framed, as it were, by masses of curly black hair tumbling down to his shoulders. He then said, "Ah. I comprehend."
"How, you comprehend?"
"Yes. You are training in the arts of the warlock."
"You have understood me exactly."
"That is hardly surprising; I have been acquainted with warlocks before. My name is Miska."
"How do you do, Miska?"
"I am, to my deep regret, entirely sober. This is because I do not have sufficient coinage to remedy the condition. If you would be good enough to buy me a drink, I will repay you by giving you a name."
"As to giving me a name, well, that may not be as simple as you pretend. Yet I will gladly buy you a drink nevertheless."
"Splendid. You are an amiable fellow, and I believe I like you." Miska then turned his head and called, in voice that carried throughout the room, "Two brandies, my good woman!"
The traveler, who, in fact, would have preferred the reserve wine, decided not to say anything, and soon enough two small glasses of brandy appeared before them, for which the warlock-in-training cheerfully paid. He men sipped his, winced again, and set his glass down; Miska, for his part, drained his glass in one long swallow, his head thrown back, then set the glass down on the table with a hard crack. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and said, "Your name is Dark Star."
"Yes, why is that my name?"
Miska looked at him, and it seemed to the young warlock that the other's black, black eyes were seeing deeply into him, and he said, "Because in the land of Faerie all the stars are dark, but you will be the darkest. You will give light, but few will know it. Your rod will be black, your home will be darkness, but you will shine. You will be the Dark Star of Faerie."
"I will go to the land of Faerie?"
"Yes. Or, in my own language, Sotétcsilleg."
"I do not believe I could pronounce that."
"Do you speak the language of the Silatan? In that language, it would be Morrolan."
"That is not one I speak."
"Then, in the language of Faerie"
"But I am able to pronounce it."
"Let us hear you."
"Well, there you have it. Your quest is complete. What will you do now, Dark Star?"
"What will I do now?"
"Yes, my friend Stétcsilleg. Your quest is complete. Will you now return to your home?"
"Oh, but I had more to do than merely acquire a name."
"Oh, yes, indeed. In fact, that was to happen near the end."
"Well, what else have you do, Morrolan? Perhaps we will dispatch those tasks as easily."
"What else have I to do?"
"Yes, yes. Come Dark Star. Tell me your tasks and we will consider them together. After all, you have bought me a drink."
"And you have given me a name."
"Then it may be that we have the beginning of a fine partnership. Or, perhaps, a legendary friendship. At all events, come. Let us hear what you have to do."
"Well, in addition to a name, I am to find a holy artifact, and a place of power, and a kindred soul. Ah!"
"Excuse me, you say, 'ah.'"
"Well, and, if I do?"
"It would seem that, to say 'ah' in that tone of voice, my dear Souml;tétcsilleg, would indicate that something has occurred to you."
"Well, in fact, something has occurred to me."
"And that is?"
"Well, it is this: Perhaps you, my good Miska, are my kindred soul."
"Alas, good Morrolan, it seems unlikely."
"Because I am only a coachman."
"Well, and if you are?"
"The kindred soul for whom you search is someone with whom you can make many journeys, and, in each one, you will grow closer together. As for me, well, once you have completed this journey, my work will be done."
Morrolan considered this in silence, at something of a loss for how to respond. At last he said, "Would you care for another brandy?"
"If we are not kindred spirits, Dark Star," said Miska, "at least, it seems to me, we understand one another, and that is not so little."
Morrolan acquired more brandy for Miska, and a glass of the reserve for himself; we should add that, as Miska had promised, this wine was a noticeable improvement over either of the other drinks. Miska, for his part, seemed content to sip his brandy on this occasion, rather than quaffing it as he had the first glass.
Morrolan watched the other for a moment, wondering at the whims of fate and fortune that bring people together, and said, "How is it you come to be in Blackchapel, Miska? For it is clear that you are not from here; and are, in fact, Fenarian, if I do not mistake your accent."
"I am of all places and all times," said Miska. "At least, when I am drunk. When I am sober, yes, I am Fenarian, and was most recently employed by a nobleman of that land, who took an excursion to visit the Lake Nivaper in order to fish and to swim. He failed to catch any fish and so for reasons best known to himself he chose to get drowned, leaving me in a foreign country without employment." Miska then belched prodigiously and swallowed about half of his drink. "I decided, then, to come here because I have been here before and fancy their brandy."
"So you are, then, waiting for something to come along?"
"Something always does, my dear Sótétcsilleg, in a day or a year or a hundred years."
"A hundred years is too long for me, good Miska; I doubt I shall live that long."
Miska gave him a quick glance, but made no other reply
Morrolan said, "You have, then, his coach?"
Miska shook his head. "I gave it into the care of the servants who came to look for his body."
"And so, you must use your feet to return?"
"Yes, my good Morrolan, if I return."
"Ah, then you may not return?"
"It is possible that I won't return, or that my return will be delayed. There is nothing waiting for me there."
"And so, I drink. I drink, and I wait to see what is in the cup fate sets before me. It is not a bad life, Dark Star. You do the same, only"
"Only you are unaware of it"
"Perhaps you are right. Then, you believe that some fate or destiny has caused us to meet?"
Miska shrugged. "Who can say?" He drained his glass, then, and stood up suddenly, appearing perhaps a bit unstable on his feet, but he said, "Come. Let us continue your quest."
"What, this very instant?"
"Why not?" said the coachman.
*I know that "bungalow" implies a single-story dwelling, but it is also the only possible translation for the Northwestern "tyuk-kö;," which is what the original mss uses. Take it up with Paarfi.SB
Copyright © 2002 by Steven Brust