Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Tea-Maker’s Task”

Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Tea-Maker’s Task”

By Aaron Bradford Starr

This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Aaron Bradford Starr and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
Art by Aaron Bradford Starr

tea-makers-task-smallDuring the years of my youth, I had often been forced by circumstance to do the occasional odd task in order to remain solvent. The profits of a Journeyman Gallery Hunter being what they were, I was driven by inexperience into other, less satisfying lines of temporary employ.

These occupations were often as strange as they were transient, and their brevity in no way diminished the amusement they engendered in my companion, Yr Neh. His levity was tempered, however, by the disruptions they caused to his comforts and social life. For a time the ledges and shelves of our room over the harbor were stacked high with unbound manuscripts, sheets of thin leather, spools of thread, and all of the other necessities of a bookbinder. This circumstance was temporary, I assured him, but he would give me long, vocal updates on the progress of his discomfort as I worked, with the pungent scents of the water below filling the room, and the damp heat of summer settling over the city of Ravanon.

After one particularly desultory afternoon I sat back from my careful stitching, announcing I’d had enough, and must take some time for a midday meal. At this news, Yr Neh perked up considerably, rolling off the window ledge where he’d made room for himself by shoving aside my work. Dropping to the floor, the cat trotted over to the door and batted with a paw at the latch, and there sat, waiting for me with thinly veiled impatience.

I collected my sandals and my coin pouch, wondering how such a light burden of funds would provide a midday meal for the two of us. Yr Neh, eyeing the pouch, preceded me out the door, passing through his smaller cat-door. Then, rather than continue any further on foot, he vaulted up to my shoulder, settling his considerable bulk into something of a traveling configuration. This amounted to spreading his toes wide, burying his every claw deep for purchase. I winced at this abuse of my heat-softened skin, but said nothing of it.

“How is it,” I began instead, “that a cat who eats as little as we can afford manages to become so stout?”

Yr Neh chuckled silently, as cats often do, and replied that his great size was an asset not to be dismissed casually. As I stepped out into the heat and sunlight he continued, explaining that his bulk lent him stature among his fellows, and implied that the loss of his noble titles was a temporary condition. He concluded by recommending the strategy to me, noting that I’d lost measurable weight since winter, and that nobility was implied by a certain degree of rondeur in the same way as a build such as my own implied its opposite.

“Here now,” I objected, turning onto Fish Market Lane. “I’m not so wasted as that! I ran four miles just three nights ago, I’ll remind you!” This reference to my unsuccessful wager with the cousin of the Magistrate caused Yr Neh to roll his golden eyes. An example of successful physical accomplishment, he replied, would be a far more powerful argument.

“This,” I retorted, “from a cat that pants after dashing up the stairs to our rooms?”

Yr Neh yawned, glancing around at the foot traffic around us, and maintained that he saved his strength for when it counted. I grumbled something about his late-night escapades, but I let the argument drop, defeated.

I selected a low-cost establishment, and we sat at the worn and oil-stained table. Yr Neh groused at the poor quality of the cat-cushion that was provided atop his pedestal, while I held my peace, sitting gingerly to avoid the worst of the splinters that besieged me from the rough, wobble-legged stool. But, as I eyed the lower-order offerings, and weighed our meager funds, I saw that even this fetid place was too grand for our current circumstance. With a signal to the cat, I stood. His whiskers akimbo in irritation, he jumped wordlessly to my shoulder, and we drifted back into the crowd flowing through the street.

I could feel Yr Neh’s tail thumping against my back in irritation. I let him go on without argument, but his suggestion that I increase my load of menial work strained my patience too far.

“Perhaps you could pick up some work yourself!” I snapped. “You could use that famous voice of yours as a shop-herald someplace. Or your lauded speed could serve you in courier work!”

He mentioned I could scrub floors, and I retorted he could herd sheep. He snapped out something about digging middens, and I responded that he could catch sewer-rats.

So it was that we arrived at Burrow Deep, neither of us speaking, and I turned into the smelliest, oiliest establishment that lined the narrow lane. The customers in this eatery were uniformly slovenly, and Yr Neh and I almost glowed by comparison. With a shift that allowed me to reassure myself my knife was securely hidden, I studied the few brave enough to risk the fare on offer. While most were merely greasy and bespotted, there were a few exceptions like ourselves, and none of the furtive glances of the pickpocket, or veiled gazes of a knife-wielding alleyman. The greatest risk, I decided, was to be had either by the food itself, or the sarcastic commentary of my companion, should he begin speaking during the meal.

This happy occurrence didn’t transpire as we waited for the serving girl, nor did the condition of the stall where we waited give Yr Neh reason to break the uncomfortable silence between us. This was remarkable in itself, for, as you doubtlessly know, the eateries along Burrow Deep Lane at this time were spectacularly awful. This was, of course, long before I took up the search for the Flower Path of Lady Meginin, and dug up the entire length of it. So I suppose I can take some credit for the fine dining that can be found there today, and why the current proprietors have extended to me limitless credit.

But, as I say, the meal in question was long before such times, when money was still of consequence. So it was that I ordered a plate of gills and fins, and Yr Neh ordered the Special of the Day, which happened to be heaps of fish-bones in a special sauce, served with a mug of grog.

“Grog?” I asked the cat after the gap-toothed girl left us. “Cat’s don’t drink grog!”

Yr Neh looked away, saying that perhaps I didn’t know as much about cats as I imagined. I sighed.

“Look here, Yr Neh,” I began, “if this is about that sewer-rat comment, I apologize. Really, I do.”

Though I thought I detected a slight abatement in the flicking of his plume-like tail, he remained silent. It was my hope that his mood would improve after the food arrived, but this was not the case at all. After an initial perk of enthusiasm at the approach, the arrival of the dishes was a severe blow to his good humor. Recoiling from the steaming heap of debris on his plate, Yr Neh drooped forlornly as I picked through the odorous pilings that were to make up my own meal.

“Well,” I began, in an attempt at conversation, “I’ve tasted fresher fins!” Yr Neh took to hanging his head over the bowl of grog, his sensitive nose just over the surface of the brown suds, muttering that even cheap grog smelled better than this food. Chewing furiously, sorting out needle-like bones from gristly flesh with my tongue, I couldn’t respond in time to keep Yr Neh from lapping experimentally at the liquid so close to his mouth. Soon he was drinking vigorously, and I, amazed, sat and watched without comment.

Soon, however, Yr Neh began to make a spectacle of himself. Lapping ever more strongly, his pink tongue flinging ever further, splashing and spattering, he began to nuzzle and prod the shallow bowl, walking it across the table, displacing his untouched plate and sending the spines and bones to the floor with a clatter. Glancing about, embarrassed, I nudged the wayward cat so that he began tracing a new route, rather than spill off the edge of the table entirely.

It was during a red-faced pantomime to our fellow diners that everything was normal that I first noticed the boy watching us. He seemed, like Yr Neh and I, to be someone driven to this place by necessity rather than choice, and I remember exchanging weak smiles with him at the antics of the cat atop my table. As I returned my attention to Yr Neh, the cat had altered his tactics, laying on his side and tipping the bowl by its rim with a paw, snapping at the stream of ale that washed over him as it spread across the table. This, I thought, was quite enough, and so, when the serving girl rushed back to see if Yr Neh perhaps wanted more to drink, I pushed some coins into her dirt-encrusted hand and decided to take leave.

Yr Neh wouldn’t submit to the indignity of being carried in my arms, and yet couldn’t manage to balance on my shoulder, either. And so we began a very slow walk back to our rooms, with the heat of the day and the vapors of rotting fish all around. Yr Neh had not eaten a thing, and I’d eaten very little. Still, when he paused to master his roiling belly, I found myself thankful to be stopping as well, my stomach as unsettled as Yr Neh’s. But, while Yr Neh began a rambling, yowling rendition of Rotthian ballads to all the females he could see, I was soon doubled over in pain, the objections of my innards likewise growing in volume. Soon, I had to sit, bent double, along the roadside, while Yr Neh rolled about on the dirt-coated cobbles and told me how much he liked me. I began to be as worried for him as I was for myself, since he had become seriously impaired.

My instincts lifted my eyes as the figure stepped from the flow of foot traffic, and I reached to free my knife, pretending to shift my posture against the wall. If I had to fight, I thought surprise would be my most effective weapon, since my guts howled in agony as if I’d already taken a mortal blow. So I pretended to be as incapacitated as I actually was.

But the form that crouched beside me was just the boy I’d seen in the fish-stall. He lacked the grubby, mean-eyed desperation of a street urchin, and his smile was reassuring rather than predatory.

“You’re ill,” he said. “You need help.” I nodded weakly at this.

“Come with me,” he said. “My master can treat you.”

To my arguments the boy gave no heed, and had soon levered me to my feet once more. We glanced down at Yr Neh, who was snoring belly-up on the cobbles, his fur clumped and straggly with ale. I nudged him with a toe, and he rolled over and began to walk beside us without complaint. His path was meandering, and his mumbled conversation incomprehensible. His sodden tail dragged, leaving a wavering trail on the stones of the road.

The workshop of the boy’s master was a tea emporium, filled with the physical components of the Tea-Making mystery. With these barks and leaves, herbs and extracts, a Tea-Maker could cure ills of the body, lend the mind insight, and soothe the spirit. Yr Neh had maintained a passing interest in Tea-Making during our time at the Academy of Viron, and I recognized a few of the items on display. The workshop had many of the tools of a powerful Tea-Maker: decorative pots of all descriptions, sitting mats woven into subtle designs, cushions, incense, and every form of cup. Tea-Making was a Mystery that touched many others. For this reason some claimed Tea-Making was of a lesser order, being part Alchemy, part ritual, and part mental exercise. The man who greeted us on entry was clearly someone of stature within the Tea-Making world, and his calm, benevolent demeanor was in keeping with his profession.

“Master Herrion,” the boy said, “here are Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh, as you requested.”

“What did you do to them?” the man asked, his voice soft and amusement apparent. The boy shook his head vigorously.

“They ate poorly-prepared foods, sir,” he said. “In Burrow Deep Lane.”

Master Herrion shook his head, looking at Yr Neh and me rather diagnostically. I bent with a sudden wave of cramps, performing an impromptu bow that sent Yr Neh into a snorting paroxysm of feline laughter. As I straightened, Yr Neh was lying on his side, legs working as if he were running. As we watched, he began to slide in a wide circle on the tiles, still laughing silently.

“You sent the boy for us?” I asked, meeting the man’s gaze so he’d stop looking at the addled cat. Master Herrion nodded.

“First, let us get the two of you sorted out,” he replied, “and then we can move on to a proposal.” With a snap of his fingers, he motioned the boy into a well-ordered preparation area near the back of the room. Amid hanging tapestries, the shelves and bottle-racks were arranged carefully according to some plan I didn’t understand. The boy evidently did, since he efficiently kept pace with his master’s instructions. Within minutes of our arrival I was seated on a cushion, hot cup in my hand, the ache of my abused stomach receding. Yr Neh sprawled alongside, deep in sleep, his fur drying into stiff spikes mortared with the dust of the road. Herrion indicated the cat.

“He’ll need something when he awakens, I suspect,” he said. “But in the meantime, we can still reach an accord.”

“Why did you send for us?” I asked. Herrion smiled.

“Because the two of you caused quite a stir among Tea-Makers,” he answered, smiling at his own pun. “The rare botanical texts you sold to the Gallery of Days have been purchased by our High Council, and have proven very valuable.”

“The Tea-Maker’s Council bought those books? But the Gallery told me they were worth very little!”

Herrion rolled his eyes in mirth. “This is why you Gallery Hunters need to organize yourselves,” he replied. “If you’d form a guild, you could train your apprentices in such skills as negotiation and appraisal, rather than learning lessons the painful way.”

Of course, his words affected me strongly, for this is indeed how I came upon the idea of a Hunter’s Guild, though it would be many years until I made it a reality. At the time, however, I couldn’t disguise my simmering anger at the Gallery for cheating me. Herrion clearly read my emotions, but he sipped his tea, then smiled.

“We felt it unfair, we Tea-Makers,” he said, “to benefit so much at your expense. And so we’d like to offer you both a task and an opportunity. You will get paid for your services to us, and can make of the other opportunity what you will.”

This, of course, sounded wonderful to me, as I was now completely destitute, and I readily agreed in principle. Herrion nodded, and his apprentice brought over a small botanical manual, of the common sort I’d been binding just the week before.

“Have you been sending book-binders my way?” I asked, noting the all-too-familiar stitch. Herrion shrugged.

“Perhaps. But clearly that form of work isn’t using your true talents, as proficient as you have become. Look to the seventh page. There. Do you see those vines?”

I nodded, admiring the coloration of the inked illustrations. My binding work had been, of course, stitching entire sheaves together, and so I’d rarely spent the effort of looking at individual pages. When time spent indulging curiosity costs so dearly, a person rapidly learns to suppress it. It was this insight that gave rise to my suggestion to the Queen of Envilu, and her subsequent founding of the School for Unfortunates that would later prove so problematic.

The vine in question looked much like any other winding, sinuous plant, but the long, frilly flowers were distinctive. Herrion sipped again.

“Those flowers are how you will know this vine from many others. The variety I wish for you to retrieve blooms but once every seven years. The only known specimens are to be found on the southern coastal hills of Morra Taun. The Ellehia export the products of this vine at exorbitant price, as you can imagine.”

I nodded. My dealings with any of the Ellehia had been slight, at this point in my life, but I was aware of how dearly they valued anything of their hallowed lands.

“Well,” Herrion continued, “the book you found in the ruins of Candelon indicate that this vine grows there, as well.”

“That was written before the Rains,” I said. “The plants likely thrived in different places, at that time.”

He granted me the point with a gesture, but his eyes gleamed. “Perhaps. But I’d like for you to return to where you found that book, and search the area for signs of the vine.”

“I’m not a botanist,” I objected. “You’d be better off hiring someone who is.”

“You are too honest for your own good,” my host replied. “It is well the cat sleeps.”

I glanced down at Yr Neh, who would have been appalled at my arguing against such a paid assignment. But my reputation would one day, I hoped, be built on success, and I couldn’t start compromising that so early in my career.

“Still,” Herrion continued, “you make a good point. I’d like for you to escort my apprentice, Kemp. He will identify the vine, and may well make valuable observations that would elude you.”

“The forests of Candelon are dangerous,” I said, uncertain. Herrion smiled.

“Ah! I see you are learning your craft!” Herrion laughed. “You will be well compensated.”

“No,” I objected, “the woods really are dangerous. There’s some sort of creature –”

“The Walker of the Woods,” the man said. “I’ve heard the tales. Have you seen this creature?”

“Well, no, but –”

“It’s settled, then. I’d like to hire you for three silver every day.”

I tried, unsuccessfully, I’m afraid, not to goggle. I had not seen a Silver Eye for longer than I could admit. Herrion, to his credit, closed his eyes, sipping once more.

“Drink up,” he said. I complied, buying time to think.

“I suppose that’s fair,” I began. “Now, there was another part of our bargain you mentioned. Some opportunity…” Herrion smiled, sipped, and nodded.

The waves were low and regular, driven by the steady wind from the east. Sliding at speed over the water, the shallow draft of my boat’s hull skittered like a stone. This was long before my recovery of the Obelisk of the Seasons prompted me to upgrade the tiny craft with a second hull for strength, or my desperate gambit for the Prince of Loftis required yet another. No, my small boat was, at that time as light as a leaf on a gale.

Yr Neh looked intently at the small rectangular plate of metal given to me by Herrion. His half-hearted attempts at cleaning his ale-matted fur, and the slow, deliberate manner in which he moved his head told a tale of misery. Keeping his eyes downcast, away from the rolling sea, his awful outward condition was doubtless testimony to inward miseries.

Yr Neh’s manner reflected other uncertainties as well. While he’d been conciliatory upon regaining consciousness, he’d been less than thrilled at the news of our returning to Candelon, even in light of our commission. The boy, Kemp, perhaps not recognizing the signs of Yr Neh’s mood, had tried to intrigue the cat with the possibility of bringing to the civilized world the truth behind the Walker of the Woods.

Of all the appeals to learning, this is one of the few that would flare a cat’s nostrils. For the Walker, it was said, was one of the Rain Races, and origins during the Turning of Rains was a thorny issue with most cats. For the changes that had come over the known world during those dark years had been many, and profound. The Ellehia had lost their sacred trust, the Fabricators of the old world had vanished, and the kingdom of Malduan had been swept beneath the waters. But for all the loss, the Hundred Visible Mysteries had arisen, unknown before that time. Likewise, the cats of the Shards had come into their own, creating a culture unlike any seen before.

But this was the beginning of feline disenchantment. For other races had changed, too, and many not for the better. These creatures, unknown by the people of the Old Kingdom, and unseen until the Rains had ended, were often dangerous hunters, stalking the ruined landscape, and fleeing the spreading young kingdoms. Escaping into the wasted old places, or into the sea that had spawned them, these new creatures were collectively called the Rain Races.

The cats of the Shards found the subject disturbing. If indeed their current status was a result of changes during the Rains, were they not themselves a Rain Race? Many of the Ellehia maintained that they were indeed, and this explained much of the historically poor relations between the Shards and Morra Taun. The allure of studying a Rain creature would have little appeal to a cat, and the use of the term Rain Race was considered impolite. I motioned for the boy to be silent, startled he could live on the Shards and not know better. Where his enthusiasm had blinded him, my look reminded him of his words. Abashed, he fell silent.

I broke the mood by sending Yr Neh up to the lookout atop the mast. We had arrived in an area of water where the sunken cities from before the Rains – and the broken sea bottom they rested on – threatened boats from just below the waterline. The beginning of this stretch of subsurface ruin was a sign we were due south of Candelon, and I adjusted the small sail to head north. The cat dragged himself to his post, letting all within earshot know of his miseries. With Yr Neh’s moaned directions and warnings, we navigated into the narrow channel we’d found years ago, allowing a covert approach to the south coast of Candelon.

It was our hope that by avoiding the main seaward approach from the east, we would also avoid any interference from the agents of the Earl of Candelon, or interaction with members of the suspicious and superstitious population that nested in the town of Carnibus. The townspeople there sheltered themselves from the violent storms off the sea, as well as more disturbing tidings from across the waters, such as news, knowledge, and culture. The Earl’s keep was visible to us on the southeastern corner of the island, where a tall rocky promontory overlooked the town below, and stared into the dense forests of the rest of the island.

The sail of my tiny ship, if seen, would have stirred only vague curiosity in the townsfolk, as our route led west, into a densely built up region of water, filled with intact buildings just below the high-tide mark. Only the smallest skiff could navigate these ways, and to what purpose? The entire coast of Candelon, save for the brief stretch of sandy beach between the tower of the keep and the rest of the island, was a sheer cliff over one hundred feet tall. Whatever our purpose, we could pose no threat to the townsfolk in Carnibus.

While there was no place to tie up along the cliff face, the southern side of the island featured numerous deep cracks at sea level, leading into a maze of lightless tunnels formed when the bulk of the land had sloughed away under the torrential rains so long ago. The seas to the west of Candelon were treacherous, with huge slabs of broken stone mixed in with the devastated cities beneath the waves. Even had Candelon been important enough to have enemies, the only possible landing, it was thought, was the harbor of Carnibus, under the watchful guardians in the Earl’s Keep.

The Earl also had numerous beautiful daughters and, as an even younger man I’d sought to court them. Thus I had found a hidden southern approach where mere military necessity had never provided the motivation. Better yet, the landing also had the benefit of acting like a secret escape route when things had not gone as planned. As I navigated the darkened tunnels, Yr Neh calling out directions and warnings from a new post at the bow, and I recalled with nostalgia the frantic departure required by my last visit to this place. Yr Neh had accompanied me on that fateful journey, and had voiced a hope to never visit Candelon again.

Now, however, as I tied the boat into the miniscule harbor at the bottom of a rocky sinkhole cut by centuries of flowing water, I noted the cat hopped onto the clean white sand with a gusto only tempered by his matted fur and the care with which he moved his head about. As I tied the craft to the ring I’d driven into the stone for that purpose, Yr Neh began the process of cleaning himself. I watched for a moment from the deck, as he tried to restore some of the gleam to the white fur of his chest. With the sea at his feet, and numerous tiny waterfalls flowing from above, he could have rinsed away most of the stale, malodorous grog in moments, but that was not something a person can suggest to a cat.

So, with a minimum of supplies, we started out, Kemp and I carrying light packs, and Yr Neh a damp presence on my shoulder, his beer-laced breath made tolerable by his muted purring. It was a sign of satisfaction I’d not heard for some time.

“You’re thinking it’s the Mines, aren’t you?” I asked him quietly. He asked in return what else I imagined Herrion’s tablet could mean, for the Tea-Maker’s opportunity had taken the form of a small metal plate, etched with a diagram few would recognize, and even fewer understand. If our suppositions about the diagram were right, then the ruined town we’d found while evading the Earl’s search parties was none other than the fabled University of Candelon, and the single book we’d discovered there had once been part of a much greater cache.

Candelon, as you well know, has a reputation for deeply ingrained ignorance, and a peculiar hostility to innovation and change. But the legends of its rich intellectual past were not, I suspected, totally sarcastic parody, but echoes of truth from before the Rains. And if those legends were carefully sifted, the common elements were that the University of Candelon, like the Academy of Viron today, was a center of learning in Old Malduan. Here, legend said, the children of the nobility had come to study statecraft, and the Fabricators stored and passed on their secrets.

Such a place had to be carefully apolitical, as the Academy of Viron was, but, as my own days as a student proved, this ideal was hard to realize. Surrounded by vast gardens and zoos for study, the University must have been a hotbed of intrigues that would find fruition many years later in the noble houses. The friendships, rivalries, and enmity formed in such an institution would have shaped much of the political landscape. The grounds of the ancient university would by necessity have avoided any hint of independent value by being strategically irrelevant, defensively inadequate, and devoid of any natural commodity worth exploitation. In this way, it had remained outside direct political or military control. Until, one day, when vast riches were discovered beneath the highlands directly to the northwest.

The resulting mines figure in far too many stories and legends for them all to be true. They are, for the most part, just shorthand for greed, when storytellers need a source of limitless wealth to drive characters into foolish choices. And yet, for all their veneer of myth, the copper tablet in my pack hinted the stories might not be completely without merit. After we navigated the climb up the sheer rock of the island, by way of weathered rope ladders I’d mounted there during a previous visit, we rested in the shade of the trees. I brought out the small metal plate, and Yr Neh and I studied it. Kemp leaned closer.

“What does it mean?” he asked.

“It’s a scribing plate,” I told him, “from the time before the Rains. It’s made to be pressed against paper, with ink, to create an image over and over. It’s a plan of a city. The Fabricators of Malduan had very precise methods of measuring, and some say that their buildings are laid out in special ways that give them their colossal strength. There are hundreds of these plan tablets known, and most of them are of no special value, as the cities they describe are long since destroyed.”

“So what’s so different about this one?” he asked. Yr Neh began a pointed retort, but I talked over him.

“Probably nothing, except to prove the existence of the University of Candelon.” And that was true enough. The tablet was inscribed with the seal of the royal holdings that would one day become this island. The heraldry of the modern Earl was unchanged. But the layout of the buildings on the tablet could only be the very village Yr Neh and I had found on our last visit here. The triangular layout was unique and distinctive.

What I didn’t say, and the tablet didn’t make clear, was that the village it showed was not where it would commonly be assumed, which was miles out into the water, among the tumbled sea floor to the west of the island. The plan showed buildings with lines radiating out from them to the periphery, each labeled with a precise direction and distance to another place, far off the map. One, casting out to the east, was labeled Candelon in the old language of Malduan. The distance would be read as about fifteen miles, placing it well away from the current coastline.

But Candelon was originally the name of the town that had supported the University, and only later was given to the entire island. This fact had only been told to me in passing one night, as I’d sat talking with the Earl’s eldest daughter. The entire area, she explained, had been called Carnibus before the Rains. So the area’s name had become the name of a single town, while the old town name had been given to the entire surviving island. The village on the map was on the island, as would have been discovered long ago, had not the inhabitants shunned strangers and learning both. Had I not befriended the only five women to defy this tradition, I’d never have known this switch had taken place. The University was a short journey into the forest from their main town, and the inhabitants had no idea.

What made the tablet especially intriguing to Yr Neh and I, was the other line leading off the tablet to the northwest.

With a distance of just twelve miles, it was labeled seffeev, meaning “burial.” But the word only meant this in modern Rotthian. It had come to take on this meaning in the decades after the Second Breaking of the Land, and the creation of the Circlet Sea. This disaster had caused chaos as the survivors struggled and fought. The desecration of burial sites was described as seffeev, which had originally meant to dig up, but so common was the practice that after society stabilized, generations later, the original meaning had been lost, and the word was used as it is today, meaning a burial place, or cemetery. But to the people before the Rains, the word would still have meant to excavate.

The line gave the distance to the Mines of Candelon. This was likely the last map plate made before the military campaigns to claim the Mines had ruined the University.

The trinket Master Herrion had given me could prove to be the most important find by a Gallery Hunter in a generation. If either part of our suspicions were true, my reputation was assured, and I’d be rich beyond all reason, and Yr Neh could reclaim his stolen titles. But we let Kemp think that our interest was in some academic footnote, and left it at that.

We began our journey through the dense forests of Candelon, hacking our way through the tangled mass with sharp brush-cutting blades of the sort used in the interior of Chancea. The bugs were ever-present, numerous, and loud. Soon we were staggering, eyes clenched nearly shut to keep the clouds of gnats from flying into them, while shaking our heads violently back and forth to clear our ears and nostrils from the continual siege. Only Yr Neh, cloaked in a miasma of old grog, walked unaffected. Working more easily through the undergrowth and between vines and thorn-laced tendrils, he moved ahead, claiming to scout the way for us.

It was easy to see why the inhabitants of Candelon stayed well clear of the jungle-like region they quaintly called The Woods. Woods, in my experience, didn’t contain tremendous insects of unknown varieties, and glistening, disturbing plants, ambulatory and vicious, that poisoned rodents and snared birds. Woods were cool, shady places, and not steaming hothouses, draped with vines and ropes of pungent mosses. The floor was carpeted with multicolored molds and fungi, and unfamiliar birds screeched high overhead. I trooped along, having experienced this place before, but Kemp looked miserable and worn, alternating with flashes of disgust and fear. I called ahead for Yr Neh, and he assured me he would keep close.

His scouting, in my opinion, did little to aid us in our way, and, after the hottest part of the day, I was about to tell him so when he called out to us from one side, well off our current heading. Following his voice, we struggled to catch up, and arrived, exhausted and bleeding from a hundred tiny scratches and bites, at a clearing in the growth.

I knew at once we’d arrived. The sturdy stone paving of the streets had resisted all attempts by tree and bush to force a root or stem between, and so the ruins stood much as I remembered them. Weak from our toils, Kemp and I settled to the ground, leaning our backs against the nearest wall.

The light was failing, but we took time to rest and refresh ourselves. Kemp made for us an unheated tea which, as I drank, created the impression of cold. It was immensely refreshing, and I felt invigorated from the first sip.

“Close your eyes as you drink,” Kemp recommended, and, following his example, the sticky, cloying heat that plagued me vanished. This was just a small sampling of the Tea-Maker’s Mystery, Kemp assured me. Given his abilities as an apprentice, it shouldn’t have surprised me to learn of the knowledge he’d later gain, or the powers of his brews, which would one day prove so pivotal in my services to the Watch of Darniel Market.

But all of this was in the future still, and Yr Neh and I merely exchanged glances, agreeing that travel with a Tea Maker, even an apprentice, was a great thing. As we spread out, Kemp going to look for his vines, Yr Neh toyed with the idea of taking his own Tea Making studies more seriously.

In the dimming light, Yr Neh and I crossed into the central plaza of the University. Knowing what we were looking at, the function of the buildings became evident. The triangular space fronted the library, an auditorium, and a practice hall. Each of these ancient buildings stood, free of all but the draping mosses and most determined twisting vines. The detritus of years under a living canopy were piled high, however, and lent the entire place an air of sad faded glory. Even the signs of our previous visit here persisted, in the patch of tile paving we’d swept clear as I’d opened the door of the library, and later closed it again. Though filled in by the intervening seasons, there was no similar sign of anyone coming here since.

“We should sleep here tonight,” I said to Yr Neh as we walked through the empty main hall of the Library, the fading light streaming in through high windows, “and help Kemp find his vines tomorrow. We’ll come back again with some proper equipment, scour the University for artifacts, and look for the mines alone.” He agreed, knowing that, for all intents and purposes, our trip here was a success whether or not the vines Herrion needed were found. If the University was real, why not the Mines, too?

Later we slept, forgetting, in our fantasies of wealth and fame, that where two legends were proven out, a third one might be real as well.

The morning light showed the sky to be a moving mass of low clouds. The winds from the northeast promised a cooler day ahead, and welcome relief from the withering heat. Rain threatened.

We started early, eating quickly and then combing the local forest for Kemp’s rare vine. I’d seemingly found it any number of times, holding up examples in triumph. But each time, Kemp would come over and examine the thin tendrils, or the leaves, or the flower, and declare that the vine was another variety of vine altogether.

Yr Neh’s head had finally ceased bothering him, but, having groomed extensively during the night, he found himself plagued by the same insect swarms as Kemp and I, and he joined us in shaking his head and snorting, clearing bugs from the soft fur of his face. He took to slinking about the undergrowth, ears flattened against entry, eyes narrowed, grumbling and muttering in irritation. Finally he demanded Kemp brew something to ward off the bugs. But the boy was surprised at the idea.

“I’m a Tea-Maker,” he told the cat, his manner insulted, “not an Alchemist.” This last was said with some derision. “I don’t brew love charms, either.”

As Yr New stalked off, tail swishing, I lowered my voice. “I’d settle for giving him a like charm, right now.” A small growl of irritation sounded from the underbrush ahead. Cats have good ears.

We continued further into the forest, fighting to move deeper. My attention flagged, and I found myself thinking about the route ahead of us. If we went too far in this direction, we’d reach the western cliffs, and I wondered if the Earl still patrolled the Cliffwalk. This wide path, driven into the stone high over the water below, was the only reliable route to the so-called Palace Keep on the western cliff face. Built as a prison, this would be an ideal place for the Earl to store Yr Neh and I, should our return come to his attention. But I doubted the Cliffwalk was in use, and, in any case, his troopers would stay well clear of the forest just above.

Without warning, my struggle to force a path further into the forest ended, as I opened a route to a wide clearing. Peeking into the heavily shaded area, I saw that the pattern of growth altered abruptly, and the forest floor was covered with soft mosses and fallen leaves. The deep shade of the forest kept new growth from competing, and the vine-laced growth we were crossing through bordered the area like a wall. With one last effort, I forced my way into this area, and lay, panting with the effort, on the soft, cool floor of the forest, looking up at the canopy far above. Here the trees were narrow trunks extending far overhead before blooming into wide sets of branches that supported broad, dark leaves. Only twinkling light penetrated that multi-layered covering, like stars in a strange, shifting sky.

In moments I’d called the others over, and they looked about in amazement. The trunks were not completely without growth, however, as a web-like tracery of vines grew between various trunks, not without pattern, but as sinuous, growing sheets, as vines stretching between two trunks bloomed and bifurcated. These sheets of snarled vines delineated areas and paths, marked by a profusion of white flowers that seemed to glow softly, providing a ghostly light where the sun failed to penetrate. The paths themselves were completely clear of plants, save for the mosses that blanketed the rock and soil.

Kemp ran over to the glowing flowers and exclaimed in delight. These vines were our objective, and he reached out a hand to take a sample.

As his hand touched the threadlike vine, the white flowers retracted quickly, bunching up into ferruled clumps, their light fading. He pulled his hand back, letting the sample he’d broken free drop to the ground.

“I didn’t know they did that!” he exclaimed. Yr Neh wandered over, and sniffed at the vine, and then took a leaf into his mouth, chewing quickly as cats will. I was surprised at this, as Yr Neh isn’t one to try out a strange plant on first inspection. But the leaves of the plant seemed irresistible, and Yr Neh had soon stripped the sample bare, and was rolling about in the moss, much like he had the day before. Kemp watched this display for a moment, and then looked up at me.

“Does he often do this sort if thing?”

“No,” I answered, shocked. Both Yr Neh and I were very young at this time, but he wasn’t a gangling adolescent. “He doesn’t eat strange plants since the Academy, where he ate something in a botany class and all his hair fell out. Except his whiskers. It was awful.”

“I see,” the boy said, and I crouched to shake the rolling cat. Instantly, his teeth were around my thumb, but he seemed to come to himself then, and stood slowly, apologizing all the while. But his shame wasn’t long-lived, as he began nipping at the leaves once more.

“We’ve got to get him out of here,” I told Kemp. “Take a cutting, and let’s go.”

The boy took a sample, and then wandered over to another patch between two other trunks to take another. “Perhaps they’re different varieties,” he explained.

Yr Neh agreed, and wandered over to sample the possible new variety.

When boy or cat disturbed the plants, the flowers withdrew, their glow dimming, and cutting the samples made the entire patch between the trunks darken. The lighting dimmed. Through the darkened plants, which grew in a sail-like web between the trunks, I could see the glowing flowers of other walls of vine, and those further on, deep into the distance, and I wondered how large this area might be. As I considered, a section of vines far away winked out. And then another. Then a third.

I looked down at where Yr Neh was rolling about, his paws gripping a vine bereft of leaves, nestled in a depression in the moss. But, from where I stood above him, the depression was of a peculiar character. With a shock, I realized Yr Neh had settled into a very large footprint, a pawprint of a supremely large cat, each toe pad pressed firmly by great weight. Looking through the vines again, I saw another patch go dim, disturbed by something passing close.

The Walker of the Woods was approaching.

I looked over to where our supplies lay, including the long brush-cutting knives. The narrow entryway I’d cut was nowhere in sight, having been reclaimed by the grasping, growing plants. This was the first time in my career it occurred to me I might want to start carrying a sword. I motioned Kemp to be silent, and, dashing over, gathered the equipment as quietly as I could. I saw another section of vine wall go dim, and I knew that if I stayed where I was, in the open area that ringed this hidden inner forest, I’d be spotted in moments. Motioning for Kemp to run ahead, I dashed back into the dark tunnel formed by the walls of vine. I scooped up Yr Neh as I passed, and the limp cat lolled about in my arms.

“Stay to the center of the route,” I whispered on catching up. “Don’t make the flowers go out!” But it was no use. As we ran, the passage darkened around us. Soon, windings and side passages had us completely disoriented. We paused, breathing hard from exertion and, I admit, fear. All of Aven Penworthy’s tales of us setting snares to trap the Walker are complete nonsense. We attempted nothing of the kind.

Yr Neh came to himself as I gathered him up to continue our flight, and he demanded loudly I put him down. I tossed him unceremoniously to the moss, and he strutted about indignantly until a sharp noise sounded made him turn. The spectral glow from behind us dimmed further, and Yr Neh stared in terrified wonder. To his credit, he stood for a moment before dashing off ahead.

We continued the nightmarish run, fleeing the unseen creature behind us. Eventually, we reached the other side of the labyrinth, the impenetrable wall of vegetation looming, solid and rustling, bright glimmers of sunlight not far off. The smell of the sea came to us on a warm breeze, and thunder rolled overhead. Desperately, I hacked at the growth, Kemp tugging aside what I managed to sever. But the progress was far too slow, and Yr Neh had little to contribute save pacing back and forth, looking back into the dark maze behind us.

Suddenly he called to me, urgent and excited, and I looked first into the dim recesses behind us, certain our doom had arrived at last. But there was nothing save the soft glimmer of the first raindrops to penetrate the canopy. Looking down at Yr Neh, I saw him retreat from the tangled forest undergrowth, then carefully approach again. As he did so, the underbrush shied away. With an excited call for us to follow, the cat walked forward, and the underbrush pulled back, allowing him passage. But as soon as he’d gone, the growth pressed back, and, attempting to follow by crawling on my belly, pulled my head and shoulders away just in time to avoid being snared by the thorny bush’s return. Kemp stared.

“What is his Mystery?” he asked. “Is he a Plant-talker?”

I shook my head, bewildered. “No, we took the same botany classes.”

“Cat-magic?” he asked. I gave him a withering glare, but he didn’t see it, looking back into the darkness, where a low growling could be heard over the increasing rain. The force of the falling water had made the entire vine network go dark, and we peered back together for a moment.

It wasn’t something Yr Neh knew, I reasoned. Then it came to me: it was something he’d eaten!

Yr Neh returned momentarily, urging us to follow. I ran back to the vines, stripping leaves from them and jamming them into my mouth. Chewing furiously, I motion to Kemp to do the same. Together, we swallowed mouthfuls of the leaves, and I remember the euphoric feel that descended on me. But soon I looked up, and saw the dark form that turned at last into our passage, a shadow that moved forward with the grace and presence I was well acquainted with, but far larger than any cat I’d seen before. Kemp, eyes wide with terror, turned and ran headlong into the brush, and I followed a step behind. With a roar, the Walker charged, lumbering rapidly in pursuit.

As we ran the plants before us recoiled violently, opening for us a passage between the trees, allowing us to run full speed through the rain-drenched forest. From behind us, I could hear the heavy footfalls of the Walker of the Woods, which repelled the forest plants just as we did.

I’ve rarely run so fast. Yr Neh, dodging around trees, kept pace, but I could tell he couldn’t keep it up, his stout sides laboring. I took the chance to scoop him up, and continued forward with a burst of speed. The rain slashed down, making footing treacherous, and I knew, with the beast just behind us, that a slip would be fatal.

Without warning, the growth ended. At that very moment, the ground dropped away beneath our feet, and we ran headlong over the edge of the western cliffs.

My first impression was of the sea stretching out to the horizon, blocked by the smaller uninhabited islands to the southwest of Candelon, and the dull blue of the shallows beneath us. On its way to strike the water hundreds of feet below rain fell past birds that wheeled just over the shimmering water. I barely cleared the hull of a rowboat suspended on a pulley rig that left it dangling level, waiting for use, and I had a glimpse of hand cranks as I sailed past.

But my desperate grab caught the edge of the boat, and I was brought up short, hanging far over the water. With Yr Neh clinging furiously to my shoulders, I struggled to pull us over the edge of the small craft, which was tilted dangerously by my weight, suspended as it was by ropes at bow and stern, threatening to dump out Kemp, who had fallen directly into it. The craft was suspended in a narrow section of the Cliffwalk, which continued ahead and behind us along the sheer rock face that dropped to the sea below. To stern, the stout wooden planks of the walk sheltered the stone of the cliff from the falling rain. Whoever operated the hand crank to lower the boat would do so from the Cliffwalk’s narrow length, alongside the hull. All this I took in as I dangled far above the water, hands clenched desperately on the boat’s starboard rim

Almost at once, a tremendous furred paw lashed out over the edge of the cliff, curved claws raking the rocks, and skittering off the crank mechanism, barely missing the boy’s head. Kemp shrieked in terror, and huddled out of our sight in the shallow depths of the boat. I began to move hand over hand toward the stern of the boat, seeking the shelter of the stout wooden planks of the Cliffwalk itself.

The Walker’s attacks were furious and continuous. It growled in frustration, and reached a questing paw over the side of the cliff’s edge. No sooner had I made the harrowing transfer from the boat to a support beneath the Cliffwalk than the full weight of the beast dropped down onto the planks just above. The creature, barely visible through the gaps, approached the boat. Yr Neh and I stared helplessly as the Walker crept overhead, growling softly. Kemp, out of sight in the boat, cowered, trapped.

The boat rocked as the huge creature tried to step aboard. The Walker pulled back, with a low growl, its massive paw catching on the release of the hand crank. Without warning, the boat plunged down, the ratchet grinding in the crank above. Kemp’s trailing howl of despair could be heard over the racing teeth of the gears, and the startled cry of the Walker. The winch gears caught suddenly short, and lines hummed as they snapped taut, the boat mere feet above the water. The weather-weakened wood of the crank gave way with the shock, and the entire mechanism tore free with a squeal of rending wood and metal.

The silence that followed was profound, eventually broken by the shouts from young Kemp, far below. Yr Neh and I looked down at the small boat as he maneuvered it clear of the shattered crank, the oars making shining rings in the rain-specked water. There was no sign of the Walker of the Woods. The Cliffwalk above us was silent, and we could only assume that the terrible noise of the crank breaking free had startled it, or perhaps the runaway crank had injured it in some small way. We called down to Kemp to row back to Carnibus to await us, since there was no way for us to safely reach the water from where we perched. After minor protest, he relented. As we watched, the rings from his oar-strokes spread on the rain-dappled water.

Yr Neh and I, without such a route open to us, struggled to reach the upper surface of the stout planks above. With patience, and caution that didn’t totally remove the horrible danger, we arrived on the top of the Cliffwalk, and began navigating it north, toward the long-abandoned Palace Keep, where Princess Teal had imprisoned her cousins during the Fifth Turning. From there, we reasoned, we’d be able to backtrack, and approach the location of the Mines from the northwest.

But our reunion with Kemp and Master Herrion was to wait. When we arrived at the Keep, of course, we found it abandoned no longer: the servants of the Fourth Archon were already ensconced there, and took our arrival poorly. But the details of our capture and descent into the Mines have been well chronicled elsewhere, as was our tiny role in the matter of defeating the Fourth Archon, and saving the Earl of Candelon and, of course, his five daughters, and I needn’t dwell on them here.

daughters-dowry-cropAaron’s first published story was “Mortal Star” in Black Gate 8. The tale of a warrior woman who leads her desperate people across the plains, pursued by hordes of mindless monsters — and something far worse — “Mortal Star” won praise far and wide. In her SF Site review Sherwood Smith called it “A very fine story that is impossible to predict.”

Aaron’s first story featuring Gallery Hunter Gloren Avericci and Yr Neh was “The Daughter’s Dowry,” published here on October 14.

Tangent Online described it this way:

A tale… that has the feel of being told around the fireplace in a fantasy setting. The protagonist, Gloren Avericci, is a freelance Gallery Hunter. This may be code for thief, but to hear Gloren tell it, he is an adventurer in true fantasy style. Even after knowing the story, it is debatable whether his cat, Yr Neh, is a familiar or a travelling companion, though said cat is presented as former royalty and sentient.

That very little is resolved in this tale is part of its charm… This was a fast and pleasant read. A story such as this deserves a world of its own and more adventures from its hero.

Art by Aaron Bradford Starr.

aaron-starrAaron Bradford Starr currently maintains an underground base of operations in a volcano under Cleveland, Ohio. Within it, he monitors the progress of two young apprentices with his enigmatic and intriguing wife. A single nonhuman creature resides alongside them.

Aaron’s first published story was “Mortal Star” in Black Gate 8. Author photo by Idit Zehavi.


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