Cothland the Less, Vistria,
(Autumn, AVH 643)
The hill was steep, the path of the two travellers destined to wind a weary way about great outcrops of lichen-dappled stone. Birch and pine thrust upwards all around, and if the boy looked up through them to see the sky it made him giddy, so that he would lose his footing. Light of dawn had yet to reach this side of the hill, and the sky he saw was grey, with a wind coursing through it, now playing lightly with the topmost tassels of the pines, now driving forcefully through, sending flights of red-brown leaves adrift among the branches’ stark tracery. “Look not on the sky, boy,” said the man who walked in front of him, “or you bid fair to bottom yourself.”
The boy nodded assiduously, shifting his eyes back to the leaf-brown carpet, dark now with the night’s rain, soft and damp under his bare feet. He lifted his gaze to the loose doeskin sheath slung over the man’s shoulder, and up to the bound sealskin hilt of the long Targacian blade which hung in it. Across his own shoulder he was aware of the movement of his own oaken sword. The sky was a lighter grey now – and he caught his breath as he lurched sideways. The man looked down at him. “Are you a bibber, a youngling such as you, that you walk staggery?”
The boy laughed loudly, and brought his eyes back to the ground. His feet were bespattered with fragments of leaf. The bare feet in front of him were the same, and he contemplated the number of miles they had walked in the pre-dawn hour. Again he looked at the bobbing sealskin hilt, and at the long, black hair behind it. There was a sudden hissing high above; he looked up to see the treetops flattened by the wind, and almost tripped. The man stopped, and looked down at him again. “And you slip foot once more,” he grimaced, “I will buffet you flatlings with this!” And he tossed back his head towards the sword. The boy chortled, and both resumed their upward plodding.
“Uncle,” said the boy, apprehensively, “When will we rest?” The man answered without looking back. “The top is no great way, now, and there we will rest.” And so they continued for a long hour, with the boy too engaged in the heavy plod to look at the treetops again. His eyes were still following the monotonous ritual of his feet when a big hand flat against his forehead halted his forward motion, and he realized they had reached level ground. “A little way through the trees,” smiled his uncle, “and you will see something.”
There was more sky to be seen, the promise of a large open space ahead. As they walked on, side by side now, the man looked down at his companion, and studied him thus for several moments. “You were ever a sturdy lad,” he said, “but now you are getting a lank one, withal,” and he reached out his hand and held the flat of his palm an inch above the boy’s head, so that his dark hair brushed against it with the bobbing of his walking. “And will I be as tall as you?” the boy asked, glancing at the hardened soles which moved easily beside him, taking in what of the strong calf-muscles were still uncovered by breeches tied halfway about them, passing quickly over the loose smock and thigh-length, sleeveless jacket to the strong features below the brow-band, from which long, black hair flowed upon broad shoulders. “Yea, and taller,” was the answer, “and you walk with me a few years more. But as for now, when we have seen what lies ahead, will we give our shanks a rest, and sit us down to bait.” He halted the boy by the shoulder, then guided him on a few more careful steps, and the young one could see that all about, now, was a great open space where the trees had, like an army, stopped their march, and that beneath their feet treetops and rock fell away for many a hundred feet.
It was splendid to look upon, and its effect upon the boy was written on his face. Below the cliff-face at their feet, bare birch and tasseled pine resumed their march, rank upon rank, while to their left countless thousands of others swarmed down great shoulders of the hills, evening into gentler undulations fading into interminable hues of brown and grey and blue. To their right, in the west, the crest they stood on curved back out of sight, revealing further miles of onward-marching forest levelling into a suggestion of flatter lands far off. The dome which spread above all was a pale and clear blue swept clean by a wind, mile-high over the southern vista, swooping and dipping nearer at hand to scour and search the trees, running chill about their cheeks and carrying their locks away from their shoulders and across their vision. “See you the river, lad?” The voice was close up to his ear, and came as the young eyes followed a flock of birds, scattered grains, but veering together in short bursts across the world above. He followed the direction indicated by the long arm extended on a level with his head, and descried far off to the south, where the land’s colours merged together into one, a thin, glinting ribbon of silver. “Yea…” he breathed.
“The river marks where Cothia does end,” continued the deep voice, “and Targacia does begin. Beyond that lies the Empire and, men say, the southern sea. “West-away,” and he pointed over the boy’s right shoulder, “where fades the land flat, dwell our cousins of the Red Dog and the Black. We did dwell a season among the Black Viars four winters since, remember you? Now look you,” he continued, not waiting for an answer, and pointing to the south again, “close by enough, beyond where the great hump of hill is – see you the road?” The boy searched where he was told and made out a small patch devoid of trees, with what seemed to be a criss-cross of cultivation on the far side of it. “Yea,” he replied, “and fields. And a straightened line amid the trees that marks it.” The man’s hands rested on both the boy’s shoulders now, and after some seconds he said “See you aught else, far off and following that line, though the line does fade?” “I do see,” came the reply, “a smoke of dust arising from the road.” The hands clutched his shoulders in agreement. “Good, lad, and a-many hoofs or boots it needs to raise so much a cloud as that. Well, to our bait then, and thereafter will we wend our way roadwards, that we may unriddle yon hoof-smoke.”
Now the path was broader, a long furrow of brown leaves which would drop straight as an arrow for several hundred yards in front of them, then turn, flail-like, back upon itself, again dropping long and straight before yet another bend of the flail. Gusts of wind would raise the surface leaves, sending them tumbling in wide swathes across the path or into the trees, or swirling in wild, contrary eddies which would whip now and then about their legs. The croaking admonitions of crows sawed through the cold air at frequent intervals, and the treetops were seldom free of their commotion. A short rest, a morsel in the belly, and a striding, downward path had all been to the boy’s liking, and he now passed comment on many things which took his eye – the wind, the leaves, the birds, the swift clambering of squirrels, the appearance of beech and oak, and tall masses of rhododendron upon each side – and was also inclined to question his kinsman liberally on a similar medley of thoughts which entered his young head. “Uncle,” he now said, and after an unusually long silence and some deliberation, “When will we go home – truly go home, and dwell among the folk?” The man looked down at him kindly. “Ah, lad…” His brow furrowed, and he turned up the corner of his mouth a trifle pensively, but continued in light, considerate tones which were calculated to answer as well as he could whilst easing the boy’s train of thought into another direction. “ ‘Tis true we have wandered a-many roads together, and for a-many years withal. And I have shown you, in your own words, all the lands and all the peoples of the world – although I have not, verily. But when there is no danger to threaten you from the clans – and changes to our betterment have already come to pass – I will take you back to dwell among the Elk-folk. It is my fancy, withal, that this may fortune ere many seasons fare their way. In the meantime,” and he gave the boy a friendly clip upon the arm, “you are learning more about the world and its affairs, and in especial about the ways of blades, than any other boy of eleven winters in all Cothia and beyond. Be you glad on that!” And the two strode on, downward, side by side, for another long hour, with the boy never ceasing his barrage of questions, now returned to smaller matters, until in mid-question he interrupted himself, to call out loudly, “Oh! Look you! We are near on the road!”
When they first left the cover of the trees the two had stood at the side of the long stretch of intermingled dust and leaves, incised with cart-tracks, muddied still after the showers of the previous night. Directly behind them and away to both right and left the forest came close to the road. On the other side of the road the fields the boy had espied from high above stretched a good distance, all dun stubble they were, and backed by the browns and greys of closely forested hills, but lower were these by far than the semi-mountainous steeps from which the two had descended. Hosts of small birds made a confused twittering in the stubble, scolding and chiding, rising and settling, and among them flapped and lurched the crows. One or two dilapidated work-huts lay low among the fields, with no sign of habitation; but to their left, timber supplanted the fields again, the road curved out of sight behind it, and from there arose a long blue column of wood-smoke. All this they had taken in in moments, and the elder had plucked the younger by the sleeve, pointing to the distant wood-smoke and beginning to speak, when his eyes darted in the opposite direction, and finger over lips he drew the boy back into the shadow of the trees.
The four horsemen cantered into sight, easing their mounts into a walk as they approached so that the boy became alarmed that they had been seen; but it was not so, and his anxiety having passed he studied them as they drew nearer. Horses light-built, piebald or spotted red on white. Bare-headed and clean-shaven, the riders all wore brow-bands over long black hair which fell freely over their backs but was done into two sets of twin braids where it fell over their shoulders; all were tatooed about the forearms and wrists.Their dress was similar – dun-colored shirts, long deerskin boots turned down from the thigh to flap about the calves, and all were weaponed in the same way, with bow and arrows slung from the shoulder in loose skin cases and quivers, and cases of stiffer make hanging from the saddle, from which protruded the metal butt-caps of javelins. They spoke not a word as they passed by. Knowing what was on the boy’s tongue, the elder spoke first. “They are Red Viars,” he whispered, “and if we tarry here until such time as they have passed out of sight, with these outriders gone you and I will sit us down and await the body main on yon felled tree across the way.” He would say no more to satisfy the youngster’s curiosity, but some minutes later signalled him to arise, and both crossed the road. The long sword and the oaken were placed out of sight behind the tree on which they sat. Now, another flock of birds like those seen from afar in the early morning appeared over the trees from whence they had come, in a rising and dipping flight, changing direction in unison as, the boy thought, a shoal of fish turns in the waters. He followed their aerobatics, and when eventually they passed into the far distance directed his attention to the chittering fuss of the small birds in the stubble and the arguments of the crows, until a sound that was new and strange caused him to search his uncle’s eyes, then to fix his gaze upon the tree-lined bend in the road from whence the Viars had come. Faint, it came to him as a weirdly discordant cacophony with a suggestion, at times, of a measured stridency. “It is the hoof-smoke that we espied from the hills,” came the voice close to his ear, “and the wind does play with it. But hark… “ As the sound increased in volume, its discordancy decreased and the strident element became more pronounced until eventually some of its disparate elements could be recognized – the tramp of many feet or hoofs, the beat of drums; and underlying this an admixture of high notes, as of clarions, and a low murmuring rumble, as of turning wheels.
No long while afterward, amid a thud of hoofs and a jingle of harness, the van debouched from the trees. A single rider led the way, astride a fine grey, a man richly clad and armed beneath his great-cloak, which, like the semi-circular crest of horse-hair sitting cross-wise on his close-fitting helm was of the deepest midnight blue. This one regarded them with a brief disinterest, and some haughtiness, as he went by, and the boy felt a strong arm laid across his shoulder and there were quiet words in his ear. “Keep good countenance, boy,” they said. “Smile a mite, and look them in the eye, but not for over-long…” Behind the first one another rode singly, bearing a long-hanging banner of sendal in the same deep blue, done with a white twelve-pointed star and decked with a strange script. Without diverting his attention, the boy spoke. “I know,” he said, “that these are of the Empire…” “Yea,” came the answer. “And reck not of their grim lineament nor their haughty carriage; but look you closely on the armature and weaponry of them.”
Now came a troop of horse in files of three with, the boy noted, twelve to each file. These carried lances of some nine feet, laid in saddle-rests, and, with thongs about wrists, held upright. Short, weighted flails were laid across the pommels, and the scabbards of long swords showed beneath the horses‘ bellies. They wore fine lamellar armour, stained the colour of midnight and laced contrastingly in sky-blue; shabraques of the same dark hue hung at the horses‘ flanks, and these all fringed and tasseled in white. Small rounded helmets with camails attached were hung too at the pommel, for the riders went bare-headed; sallow-featured all, with scant beards – some with only small lip or cheek beards – and raven’s wing hair done in topknots or horsetails. They looked askance and unsmiling, each one, at the two seated at the roadside. The boy, though, was straining forward, elbows on knees, for now the staccato rap of timbals could be clearly heard, and the measured tramp of marching in step. “About they in blue I will tell you anon,” said the voice in the boy’s ear. “But look you on these others.”
As the drum-raps grew louder, there came another mounted captain, with crimson great-cloak about him, followed by one with a banner of like colour bearing a splayed eagle in gold and yellow. Then came the drummers, a score in all, youths scarcely a few winters older than the boy who looked on them, and directly behind came six others with long clarions held at the shoulder. Behind these, keeping step to the timbals, marched a great company of foot, and the boy noted particularly their close-cropped hair, their coats of iron and leather jezerant, and the high packs that weighed upon their shoulders. As he took in this, a command came back from the mounted captain, at which the clarions blared in unison, the drums stopped abruptly, and with a collective voice like the sigh of wind the whole company of foot broke step and trudged forward with whatever gait they wished, and beginning to banter amongst themselves. Many looked over, some with friendly nods to the two observers.
Now the boy stood up in wide-eyed interest, for there came, pulled by a six-team of oxen, a long cart surmounted by a high canopy and hangings of heavy crimson stuff with the splayed golden eagle repeated in regular all-over pattern. These curtains were open and tied to corner posts and there sat, behind the driver in his seat and in the wagon proper, two men busily engaged in conversation over several charts spread out on a chest before them. It was not these who had taken the boy’s attention, however, for midmost in the wagon was a small but heavy looking table of dark polished wood upon which was set the pieces of a game, one of gold, the other silver. Studying the pieces, and each other as they contemplated their play, were a man – tall, greying at the temples, richly attired, a jewelled dagger at his waist – and a woman, fine-featured, high-coiffured and adorned with necklaces and bracelets glittering with gold and gemstones. Neither of them noticed the lad who gawked at them from the roadside, absorbed as they were in the game; but the eyes of the two crossbowmen at the rear of the cart were upon him, and upon the man who, standing at his side, had placed an arm over his shoulder. Flanking the wagon upon each side of the road were a file of foot-soldiers, and these, it could be seen, stretched out behind for a long way.
The two sat down again, and watched the rest go by – other ox-wagons, under canvas and piled with equipage, a double line of pack-mules, all flanked still on either side by the file of foot-soldiers; archers and slingers, next, dark-skinned men lightly clad in loose trousers tied at the ankle, and with caps of hide, lappeted and naped, upon their heads. Among the long train, toward its end, came another long ox-cart, the presence of which was heralded in advance by the great clamour of its occupants.There was shouting and singing and the sound of timbrels, a great deal of laughing, and presently, looking down upon the two at the roadside were a throng of women and children, closely packed. Some of them stared unabashed, or pointed fingers at them, calling out in a language that could not be understood; others smiled pleasantly and looked away again. Lastly, a plump and laughing woman of middle age shouted out something at the top of her voice, making overtly hugging motions and blowing kisses at the two, at which the whole wagon erupted with a storm of laughter, the timbrels banged and clashed, and the young one at the roadside flushed and looked down at his feet. His kinsman grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair. “See, they like us!” he said loudly over the din. Then the revellers had passed, the last of the flank guards padded by, and the noise began to subside into the distance.
Now the murmur of the wind could be heard again, the rustle of blown leaves on the road, and the chatter of birds in the stubble came marvellously loud and plain. The man reached out and hauled out from behind the trunk the two weapons in their sheaths, slipping the one deftly over his shoulder and holding the other out to the boy, who took it whilst looking still at the tail end of the procession, the distant bobbing caps of the last flank guards and the receding wagon, smiling wryly at his uncle as there came on the air a faint barrage of laughter and a clash of timbrels. His uncle, though, looked back along the forest road from whence the procession had come. He sat at gaze for some minutes, prompting the boy to ask if he expected more, but the words were barely out when there came the sound of hoofbeats and a body of horsemen, six in all, came cantering from the trees.They wore the same winged boots and were dressed, mounted and weaponed as the first outriders, and like them were tatooed from wrist to elbow, but from their woven brow-bands and single trammels separating the hair about the shoulders from that over their backs, the boy knew them to be Black Viars.
Seeing the two sitting there, they drew rein, and one of them, giving a loud whoop, dismounted and strode toward them.The boy’s uncle met him before he had advanced more than a few paces, and while the others looked on, they held each other by the shoulders, smiling broadly. “So, Kisha, my friend, you eat the Empress’s bread now?” The boy knew that his uncle’s words were a light-hearted criticism. The one called Kisha glanced at the others, and replied “Yea, we all serve the Empire, here – insofar as it fortunes us. But…” and he slapped the other on the arm, “we know too where friendship lies.” Then the boy found himself called to join the group, and with much taking of hands he and his uncle exchanged greeting with them all. Afterwards, his uncle and the man Kisha paced together, in earnest conversation, with gesticulations toward the road in the direction the procession had gone. The boy could not hear what was said, and in a short while the Viar took horse and after salutations the six moved off. “Kisha has the gift of bellomancy,” murmured the man to the boy, placing an arm over his shoulder. “Like no other, by his shafts he will tell what is foreset. Hola! Bellomancer!” he called good-humourdly after them, “What is your divination for this day?” His friend plucked an arrow from his quiver, regarded it perfunctorily and looking back, cupped his hand to his mouth. “My divination,” he called, “tells me that if you put not your gab to rest, man, we will never gain upon yon sportive maidens!” There came a bout of laughter from the others, and all sent their mounts into a canter.
A half-hour’s walk took the two to the bend in the road where the fields gave way to forest again. All the while the wood-smoke had continued to rise above the treetops, and once they had rounded the curve of the road the boy was surprised to see not the dark of the forest, but great stretches of stubble-fields again, with the glint of small ponds among them. And now signs of human activity could be seen and heard, for flocks of noisy geese herded by young girls spread out here and there to left and right and not far off, where the road turned again into the forest, lay a low, straggling timber building from which the column of smoke they had followed rose steadily. The road surface, fairly churned by the passage of so many wheels, hoofs, and boots, had been moist and cool to walk upon. At a short distance from the building they stepped off it on to the bank, and here, after rubbing their feet clean with tufts of grass, they did on and laced up the sandals hung at their waists. At this spot, half covered by and in bright contrast to the mud, lay a length of red ribbon, and once more an image of that last rowdy, happy waggon appeared in the boy’s mind. It was not yet mid-morning.
After a short walk along the rank, trodden grass they stepped onto a timber platform, roofed over, but open on all sides, upon which were a number of pine tables and benches. They took one of the nearer tables, each placing his sheathed sword beside him on the bench. The place, the boy saw, was some kind of inn or hostel, and the host (a lean, bent-over fellow of some fifty years with a bald top but lank grey hair falling about ears and neck, and grey mustachios drooping to each side of his chin) evidently recognized his uncle. After they had exchanged a few words the man shuffled into the main building and some minutes later returned bearing a tray with two large bowls of steaming broth accompanied by slabs of black bread and ewe’s milk cheese upon a platter. He now made much of the procession which had passed by his door. “Yea,”, nodded the seated man, taking up the cheese in one hand and a knife in the other, “We did see them. An offshoot of the mother lair. But tell me, were there hereabouts a smaller body of weaponed men?” Their host looked sharply and knowingly at the questioner. “Yea, lord – “ The cheese was put down and the hand that had held it laid upon the wrist of the innkeeper. “Address me not in such wise, Master Taverner…” He eased his grip, and the moustached one wagged his head apologetically. “Yea, good sir. Herein they guested yestere’en. Some two-score of Targacia. They camp half a league hence on the brook,” and he jabbed a thumb toward the back of the house. He bowed slightly, turned and shuffled toward his kitchen. “And Master Taverner – we will sample both your straw and your feathers this night!” the boy’s uncle called after him. Knife and cheese were taken up again, and turning to the boy, he sniffed at the broth, and winked. “ ‘Seek your bed where’er you can. Feathers for a maid, but straw for a man’. Straw to lie on, and a roof over our heads this night, lad.”
From ‘The Armoured Isle’
Note: Poetry from The Armoured Isle, an interminably long (probably some seven hundred pages or more, were it in book form) ‘Heroic Romance’ upon which I worked on and off – mostly off in recent years – for too many decades to think about, has already appeared on a couple of occasions in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion. Above, as the title indicates, is the tale’s Prelude; well, more correctly, an unfinished Prelude and the first of four. The action above takes place not on the Armoured Isle, but in a great continent far away over the seas to its west. The accompanying three, as yet only sketched, take place on the isle itself, and all four preludes are built around the principal characters of the tale at the time of their approaching youth, twelve significant years before the story proper begins. The lives of these four young ones, in their early manhood and womanhood at the outset of the main tale, are destined to converge, and, further, play a role in the fortunes of kings and kingdoms. To briefly outline the continuation of this first Prelude, at dawn the next morning the boy and his uncle leave the inn to meet up with the band of Targacians at their encampment. It is an agreed rendezvous, the object of which is to negotiate the ransom and release of a young Vistrian noblewoman (still in her teenage years), and kin to the boy and his uncle. The negotiations succeed – not without mishap – and the girl is brought back to the inn, to rest securely that night on a mattress of down according to the expressed proverb with its ‘feathers for a maid’.
This post is very much an interim one. The one I would have liked to post is for various reasons still in progress, but as it has been a long while since the previous one I felt it important to post something, and wished to avoid putting up anything shortish for something longer and a little different – and I hope viewers will find this introduction to The Armored Isle, even in its isolation, of interest. I say ‘HeroicRomance’, which is how I like to think of it, but I suppose that these days it would fall into the realm of Fantasy Literature. Looking at it again, I think that now I would re-write and correct some parts of it, but just now there is no time. It could do with a short glossary, too, I feel, as, composed and mannered as it is in an archaic ‘mediaeval’ style – although I have deliberately omitted all the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and many another expression which might render it too ‘flowery’ and thus uneasy to the modern ear – it contains terms which are uncommon and which might be unfamiliar to some. But I simply must post this before the end of the month to atone for the meagre offering, so far, for March.
Cothland the Less, Vistria,