The wind blew over the plains, tracing snaking trails of flattened grass as if an invisible god was running its fingertips over the earth. The sound reminded James of the soft brushing of the horses, and his own mare whickered lightly beneath him. He gently kicked its flanks, and it trotted down the low berm into the soft mud of the trail that split the horizon into two vast halves. The convoy followed.
They had been following the western trail, known to locals as the Kuhandahar, for the past three weeks. Provisions were still plentiful, as the plains were rich with native fauna and the hunting was good. They had grown accustomed to the stringy meat of the small marmoa, a ferret-like creature lured by their campfires at night and by honey during the day. With food all but hopping into the cookpots it was no wonder that the tribes who inhabited the great plains were nomadic.
The trail would eventually lead to the foot of the great Indal mountain range, and from there James would need to find the pass that cut between them. The map the royal cartographers had given him made it seem like the Kuhandahar flowed evenly into the range. A narrow strip of crosshatching drew a gap between two illuminated peaks, but it looked more like his son’s finger-painting than the brushstrokes of a monarch’s artisans. The map had also shown a wide lake outside of the Gorine Bazaar, a gathering place at the edge of the plains where the tribes would meet and trade. There had been no such lake.
“The map is old,” Carmine had explained when James had noted the discrepancies one evening at camp. “The explorers who were commissioned to survey these lands had fallen under the spell of the cyan ambrosia and their findings had been of the more… creative variety.” The old armorer had grinned, displaying a rusty set of iron teeth. She smoked, and when she blew plumes of the burnt tobacco through her metal maw it reminded James of the steam engines in the capital city. He wondered if he would ever see them again.
He had taken extra pains to correct the maps after that, insisting on redrafting them and slowing the convoy down to take the proper lay of the land. They were not under the threat of any deadline, other than their own survival, and those who had joined James on the adventure had all done so with the knowledge that it may have been a one-way journey. They were seasoned travelers all, most without family, and those who were married or otherwise partnered were happier on the road than back in their homes. For them the journeys without had become of greater interest than the building of nests, and it was a choice that James understood well.
It was on the third night through the plains that they met with their first apparition. The scout on watch duty, a young squire called Crutch—so named for the limp he refused to address—spotted something glowing out in the darkness beyond the camp’s firelight. James awoke from a fitful rest and, bleary-eyed and grumpy, clamped his precious longviewer to one bloodshot eye and peered out into the night.
A figure was drifting plaintively amid the tall grass. It dripped moonlight, held its mouth open, and twisted its head from side to side in a silent caterwaul. The sight of it unnerved James, for he had not thought to bring along any seers or magirs. He polled the camp for anyone versed in the ways of the spirits, and a half-man named Op claimed to have a limited understanding. They sent him to greet the apparition—a service for which he insisted on a payment of five silver klens—and he made his way out across the darkened plain with only a torch and a small glinting dagger for protection.
James stood overwatch, alternating the focus of his longviewer between the diminutive form of his emissary and the drifting specter. It felt as though an hour passed before at last the light of the distant torch, no more than the glint of a fleck of fool’s gold to the naked eye, met the phantasmal glow of the apparition. There passed what looked to James’s far-seeing eye a lengthy parley, and then the long and slow return of the half-man.
“It says we be trespassing on ancient grounds, and that because we be foreigners we be allowed this one excuse.” Op’s broad brow gleamed with sweat in the firelight, and his face was an ashen grey. He smiled though, as if satisfied that he had achieved something wonderous. “If it do find us tomorrow eve upon the K’nahra—which I took to mean Kuhandahar—we shall be made to perish.”
“Made to perish?” Carmine asked and belched a gout of dirty smoke into the night air. “I daresay we won’t. What power specters had in the living world fled when they left their bodies behind. I’ll not be scairt away from the trail by the empty words of the dead.”
“Mayhap we should seek local guidance?” Crutch asked. James had chosen not to enlist any native scouts at Gorine, mostly due to their exorbitant rates. Food may have been plentiful, but gold was not.
“Seeking for a native encampment would be foolish,” James said. “We have only the trail to guide us, and unless it branches or otherwise reveals landmarks that we might plot alternate routes by, we are going either forward or back, and I assure you that only one of those directions is reasonable.”
They decided to press on and ignore the dire warning of the apparition. An oppressive air hung over them the next day and James could feel the unease among the convoy, but he had made his decision and they would follow him as they had for the past year.
By the time the sun dipped low on the horizon they had not come upon any deviating paths nor landmarks.
2014.10.31 – 2023.06.22