Inscriptions found in a cave above Freemans Port, New Florida, May 20th, 1366
Welcome dear sister or brother. If you bear no evil, then pray find you refuge and comfort within this humble cave. Today I take leave of its safety. I have hidden long enough. It is time to return to the Abbey and face my next-days.
Take care not to touch the drawings on the very walls in the chamber beyond. I blaspheme not when I say they were painted by David the Fallen. They are therefore quite old. Sadly, His was a good story lacking an ending. I searched all the dark places within and found no other marks to tell me the finishing of it. Maybe you will have a better fortune. I leave His true memory in your hands. Read and see. What they preach from the Abbey is mirror face opposite of all things written here on!
Remember me traveler. If you find nothing else on this wall written by my hand then His Holiness meted upon me punishment and I walk among you no more.
The door at the end of the dungeon hall screeched on its rusted hinges. My heart jolted. Low voices and heavy steps. Torchlight warmed the walls beyond my cell bars. Something metallic scraped against the wall as the execution party neared my cell. They planned to cleave my neck here upon the blood stained stone that had served as my stool. I stepped beyond it so I didn’t have to look at it, and sank to my knees. The distance caused my leg chains to stretch taunt behind my ankles, my wrists swayed high above the back of my head. Through my matted hair, I bowed and whispered a final prayer. The door lock clanked. Latch lifted. Voices grunted as they laid shoulders against its ancient wood. The door hinges protested with sea bird screeches. Four years had it held fast. Maybe the Creator would prevent their entry! What a wondrous miracle if—
The old door burst free and plowed a wide sweep through accumulated dung straw. The Jailer entered with a smoky torch. The Priest and the Head Nun of my order followed. I was not to be spared death by any miracle today.
So be it. Sixteen years here was plenty. I was ready for the coming after.
I blushed remembering the cave. The place no one else knew but me. A place they would never find and desecrate with their ridiculous excuse of a religion. The place I met him.
The guards lit torches around the room. This was it. My head was about to leave my neck.
I whispered a prayer.
“Blasphemy!” hissed the Priest.
He laid a hard slap across my face, not the first time by his hand. A tooth knocked free. I was so mad, I spit it on his foot. That earned me a punch in the gut. I doubled over, biting back the pain. The four chains holding my wrists and ankles were unlocked, save one so that I could be laid over for my beheading. My right ankle remained anchored to a thick wooden beam mortared deep in the ancient wall. The jailer yanked me to my feet and made me stand before the chopping stone. It had been my only piece of furniture in this cell.
The hooded ax man entered like an enormous shadow, stooping so his bulk could fit through the door. How could one so large move so silent? He pushed past the other guards and came straight to me. I looked up at the hood concealing his massive face. He laid his gleaming blade down and leaned the huge handle against his thigh while he rubbed chalk into his enormous hands. I stared at my reflected image in the blade and filled with a calm I could not explain. I would still have this face in the life to come. Good. I liked my face. The Priest unrolled a parchment covered with official stamps and opened his wrinkled mouth to speak. The nun looked down at her clasped hands. She seemed to be knowing the wrong happening and yet she did nothing, said nothing. Fear lets so much evil be.
His droning was as boring as Evensong prayers. All of Freeman’s Port knew he didn’t believe his own words. Including those standing here letting me die. He only wished favor from the Holy Papa in New Florida. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the ocean outside these walls. Running free across the sand with a village stray, a scruffy brown dog named Roco. If I hadn’t befriended him I would not be here. But then everything else that had happened, what I saw, would not have been.
The knowing washed away the fearing. This was not my dying time. This was something else. What exactly was hard to plant. Something so wonderful they’d be wanting me dead twice. It was that strange knowing that got my doing up.
Before the Priest could finish croaking his “prayer”, I laid my head sideways upon the chopping stone. The Priest lost a couple words before he could say them. I had stolen his thunder as David would say. But then the Priest’s wrinkled face twisted into a down-going grimace—his mouth’s version of a smile. He signed over me the Four Directions; forehead, waist, left shoulder, right shoulder.
North, South, East, West.
Water, Earth, Wind, Fire.
Dipper, Orion, Cassio, Sun.
I was the only one on Miriam who knew what those words meant. Frack, I was the only one on Miriam who knew it was round. If I declared that right now, they would have to kill me three times. I fought back a giggle smile.
“She is mad,” the priest said sadly. “Release her from her torment.”
The jailer, the priest, and the nun stepped back. I guessed they did not want blood on their garments. Maybe if I tensed my neck muscles right before the blade hit, my blood would baptize them.
The axe man raised his ax.
Seeing that huge blade high above my neck made my calm flee like surf birds running from Roco. I bit back a scream.
The Blade dropped.
Five years Before
I knelt on the cobble stones and took a quick look around the corner of the horse stable. The temple guard was flirting with my roommate. She flicked her long hair provocatively, a signal to me that all was clear upon the beach. I darted across the barnyard and through the crack in the seawall. The beach spread wide and empty down to the curling ocean.
A russet blur burst from the woods and into my arms.
“Hush Roco,” I whispered.
He licked his little jaws shut as if knowing a single bark could ruin my plan. I kissed him on his wet nose. We darted the rushing surf edge, letting the foam wash away our prints. Roco’s as large as mine. We ran into the gloom beneath the Long Dock. I checked to make sure no one was in view. I crawled up to where the sand met the underside of the ancient planks. Pulled away a pile of old nets and branches. My father’s skiff waited beneath. Little Roco tried to help me tug the boat as it rolled on its land wheels behind me. The wheels were my father’s invention to hide his boat quickly from the alms collector. Light slivered through the dock timbers, casting long thin lines of light as if marking my way. The docks were empty during morning Vespers. Everyone whether they wished it or not was packed within the half-constructed cathedral of New Florida. Even from this distance it loomed over Dock Ward. All the towns people were likely prostrate on the cold stone floors whispering their praises to His Holy Smoke-ness. All except the guards outside and their girlfriend nuns.
My caches of food and tools hung in four sacks under the dock. I used Papa’s fish hook pole to lift them free and one by one they dropped into my arms and into the skiff. I pushed it into deeper water until it barely floated. Roco scampered aboard, took his place at the bow, eager for the adventure to begin. Still he stayed his bark! I shoved off and poled us past the pilings, riding the rolling harbor waves at an angle that gave the bow purchase without tipping us over. Once clear of the docks, I hoisted the square sail and caught a light breeze. It strengthened as we cleared harbor. We tacked north along the coast, careful to stay out of arrow range. Bandits still roamed those old lands. Lush forest crowded the shore. Ancient grey stones towered over their swaying limbs. Ruins from a time long before any of my family remembered. I marveled at their ancient perfection. Each stood the same height and girth. Such strange constructions, aye they stood as soldiers along the coastline, some with twisted pieces of metal protruding from their peaks, as if they once stood taller. Some were connected by a single stone that stretched further than I could throw a ball. If there were a means to climb, I surely would have been upon their summits, enjoying a sunrise. But poor Roco would have been distressed the whole time and I would not have enjoyed it. The trees thinned. Open water glinted through their flanks. Whitecaps rolled across before our path. They were larger than last trip. Roco grew worried. I grew determined.
“It’s okay,” I yelled over the swells. “It’s okay.”
Roco looked doubtful.
We cleared the point. The wind doubled in strength. The sail tightened, and the boat surged into open water. My hand gripped the tiller as the other played the sheet line. The shore behind curved back west. But the stone towers stretched straight into the open ocean. If they could cross this vast sea then so could we.
Roco looked back expectantly. Here was where we always turned back.
I shook my head. “See those clouds ahead?” I pointed over the rolling waves.
“That means there is land ahead,” I said.
But no one in the village had ever dared cross. Not even the merchants who could easily make the crossing.
“Who cares about old stories?” I said. “I don’t.”
Roco leaned over the bow, wagging his whole body in anticipation. The strange stone ruins pointed the way across the sea. Straight to the clouds.
“Whoever built these stones must have meant to guide a sailor somewhere very important,” I said. “If they wished no one to find whatever was there then they would not have left such a large trail.”
Roco barked his agreement to my studied theory.
“Well, then that is the settling of it,” I laughed.
The sail suddenly fluttered opposed and I worried for a moment if our journey was over. I could not hope to pole us across such a vast sea. Then the wind turned completely to my back, our sail filled taught, and the boat surged forward. Roco leaned over the bow barking.
“Thank you!” I yelled to whatever benevolent spirit had leant us aid. I held the tiller with both hands and raced the waves. Never had I traveled so fast! We left Landings behind in gathering clouds and for a time there was only open ocean and the endless grey pillars for guidance. I followed them past two strange islands also of stone. No pillars stood in the waters between them. The water churned darker and ran contrary to the wind. Here was a mystery as I could see in the lee of the second island clear to the bottom. There was a stone tube of immense size linked to the island under the waves. We sailed over it and I saw that it curved deep into the water towards the first. Did it go all the way to the first? Then I saw the opening of it upon the island. A tunnel! Was it dry? So tempted was I to explore but the wind would have none of my sideways thinking. Forward we surged. I wove between the pillars as one would race along the cathedral columns at night. Not that I partook of such goings on of course!
Roco barked me loose from my thoughts. The columns were shorter. I looked up and the clouds parted before our bow. Land appeared. It revealed itself in layers. First beach, then brush, then forest, then high hills, then last of all something I had only heard of in stories but never seen.
“Those must be mountains Roco,” I whispered, fearing the naming would make them vanish.
The wind carried us straight to the beach. I steered into a narrows where stones were not and rode the waves till washed firm upon the sand. Roco raced around the beach and did his planting as I tugged my skiff into the tangles. I stood and looked proudly about. I was the first of my people to set foot on these shores. I knew that because to do so carried the sentence of death. I had to be the first, for all journeys east were forbidden. Why was it forbidden I had asked. Because it is, came the reply from every older monk, villager, even fisherman for cranks sake! A land of cold and ill clime lay there to said they all. A land cursed with sickness and giants.
But had any of them seen to this cursed land?
No, but there were stories, they said.
Stories like what was preached from the Vespers?
None answered as I was a child.
So I determined to find out for myself.
“And now we are here,” I whispered.
Roco seemed to understand my intent to begin a climb. He plunged into the brush, then turned back to see if I followed. Barked when I did not. Barked again loud enough to wake any giant sleeping within a day’s walk.
“Wait!” I warned. He sat, worried his eyes and looked anxiously towards the hills as if every earthly delight known to dog waited there.
“No fears, we are going hither,” I chided. “But first,” I pulled the hood over my head and slung a carefully packed bag over my shoulder. Then I pulled a small blanket with holes for Roco’s front legs and forced his wriggly body into it. He gave me a sullen expression.
“Thee will thank me when we reach the cold climes,” I explained. “Higher makes colder; said my teacher.”
Roco looked doubtful. He shook hard to rid himself of the contrivance. My handiwork held fast.
“If the stories are not true,” I offered. “Then we shall hang it upon a tree to mark our finding place so that we may visit another time.”
It grew dark ere we even reached the top of the first foothill. Never would I have guessed that things called mountains could be so large, feel so close, and be so far away.
“They must be moving mountains,” I panted.
Roco ducked in and out of bushes, scaring up birds and insects I had never seen before. “Amazing things like oceans and mountains should have their beginnings and endings next to each other,” I said. “Not spaced so with endless middle grounds between them.
Roco looked up from his sniffing as if to ponder my point.
“Much more efficient for the discovering of things.” I explained.
I looked down through tall pine trees at the distant seashore. The three suns hung lowish in the sky. Even if I turned back now, we would not be home before Part Dark. If we kept going to the top, we might not be home by All Dark three days hence.
“Maybe we should turn around just the same,” I said.
Roco’s ears perked. He turned and darted up the foot of the mountain.
I raced after him calling his name. Occasionally I heard his happy bark, high up in the growing dimness of Part Dark. I continued my climb and held calm. Roco would return for a pat and treat. He always did. The wind blew chiller than I’d ever known, but not chiller than anything my teacher had whisper warned. How had he come upon these forbidden knowings? I pulled my second wrap and later my third wrap. I put foot coverings over my sandals and began to search for a wind sheltered place to sleep.
My father had been a tinsman, traveling to the next village of Farfield to sell his makings. I journeyed with him and we would camp at the Halfway Meadow. Once the Meadow had been strangely cold. White ice fluttered from the sky. Father said he remembered days past when his father had seen such things often. When the three suns had followed each other differently. His father had taught him how to sleep in such strange fallings down. We spread our ground cloth and tied part of it over a rope between two trees. It made a fine roof that a fire close by warmed well. I made the same now, in the gathering Partdark, by myself.
The fire grew from my spark stone. I settled under the covering and browned a Tack-eat on a sharpened stick. I broke off a piece and placed it on a stone near the fire.
“For you Papa,” I whispered.
Roco found his way to our camp and settled down next to my sleeping place. I gave him some of my food and imagined discoveries in the morning and angry priests in the evening.
But how angry would they be after I showed them things I would find? What exactly those things would be was an answer without finishing words. I only hoped they would be of the marvelous story making kind, the better to save me from a lashing.