I had no particular destination in mind this day, and the northern tip of the country had little to offer to casual sightseers unless they had particular interest in the historical sea-fortresses that guarded the forelegs of the Barking Dog, or in the Carrier Birds that lived on the rock beaches there. For my part, neither held any particular fascination, but I was not feeling any pressure to commit myself and it would not have come as a surprise to me if I had spent the evening alone on a stony shoreline, eating my dinner in the company of Carriers.
Exposed to the sea to the north, south and east, invasion from the waves has been a frequent feature of Rhigan history. Several centuries ago, my own kinsfolk sailed across the narrow expanse between us and seized control of the southern half of the country within days. Before that, northern pirates, buccaneers sailing on the behalf of states whose names are now long lost to us, raided the exposed towns year after year, burning crops and buildings, and carrying off the residents as slaves. It was these incursions that prompted the building of the sea fortresses, early examples of Rhigo’s engineering prowess. History suggests that they were paid for directly from the pockets of local military officers, who had no other means of responding to the lightning raids of the northmen.
Of course, these days it was land-invasion that presented the greatest concern to military minds across the continent. With Ondia adopting an isolationist stance in response to its fading military influence, it was the Rzermis raiders to the far north who had started to make incursions southwards. Camir, their enemy for the better part of two millennia, had responded to repeated raids by strengthening troop and ship numbers on its own borders, but the northern tribes, normally notable for their infighting, had recently been showing signs of uniting. Each month their armies swelled with greater numbers, greater purpose, and by now even the Ministry had concerns about their ultimate intentions.
Still, one cannot allow the shadow of war to dictate one’s actions. It is precisely when the stakes are highest that cool heads are most in demand. At some point I would have to head west, towards the escalating conflict. First though, I would cross the Sholl of Grains.
What can I say about this place that more able scholars have not already said? Imagine a land longer than anything a man could walk, in one day or ten. Then imagine you are standing in the middle of that land, and all you can see in every direction are the bowing heads of the various sorgha grasses that feed the continent of Nebra. Feel their softness in your hands as you pass by. For a sholl, think of a waist-high ochre sea, one that you could wade through in any direction until the strength in your legs failed you and you dipped beneath the surface into a world of endless green stalks. Above you, as you lay there, clouds rushed across the yellow sky with all the speed and adroitness of windborne caravels.
The Y-train was absent of tourists, but packed to the brim with buff Rhigan labourers. They were dressed for conditions in lightweight, light-coloured clothes. Loose trousers were secured at the waist with sashes, and many went bare-chested altogether. Each of them seemed to know all of the others, and their erstwhile greetings were repeated time and time again, swelling up the body of the engine like a wave. In their hundreds, they swarmed the carriages, taking up the seats, the tables, one another’s laps. Outside, they climbed upon the roofs and hung from the sides. Many of those who arrived early could have got inside but chose to stay outside anyhow, proud of their acrobatic prowess. In this ubermasculine environment, I became the focus of much attention and merriment. As per usual, I did my best to bear this with good grace, but as we accelerated into the countryside, the temperature in the carriage rose dramatically and quickly became wearing on everyone.
It was some hours later when the train pulled into one of the tiny nameless supply depot stations that acted as storage for villages within the Sholl. I was hungry, cranky and desperate to get out of the baking carriage, which by now smelled hellishly fruity and oppressive.
I was whistled as I hauled my bag through the crowd and fought my way out the door. At no point had their attentions moved beyond simple ribbing for my beard or the smartness of my daysuit, but the heat had left me ill-tempered and I was conscious of dozens of pairs of curious dark eyes following me as I stepped out onto the platform. Still more traced my steps through to the sand-coloured tent that doubled as a mess canteen for labourers passing through the area. Such was my antagonistic mood that none of the food there appealed to me, and I was forced to eat a stew that would normally have been quite palatable but which on this day conspired to burn my mouth while simultaneously tasting of nothing. I rejected all attempts at conversation with an escalating succession of glares, and sulked to myself in the discouraging atmosphere.
When my dish had been taken away, I picked up my bag and considered my options. There was nothing except sorgha fields for fifty miles in every direction, and there seemed little point in wandering when all it would lead to was sunstroke. I had heard much of the sweeping beauty of the vistas in the Sholls, but those I had spoken to had been people like myself, passing through on the way to somewhere else. Now that I was here, amongst the sweat and the stifling, endless nature of the toil, there was far less glamour to it than I had imagined. It was no wonder that an artist and storyteller like Doregun had made whatever sacrifices were necessary in order to leave this place.
When this thought had come and gone, I moved onto a different and still more sobering one. How many more artists, storytellers, potential legends, lived their lives in the middle of this vast expanse and were so tired from their labours in the field that they never so much as picked up a pen? In my mind, I could feel the righteous anger of whole mistreated generations, and they queued within my fevered mind, eager to denounce their wasted existences.
I was alerted to a change in the mood of those outside, many of whom suddenly stopped in their labours and began to run across the fields in the direction of the tent. Still others called to one another, and there was evidently some curiosity. All I was able to see through the rapidly-growing crowd was flashes of light on the horizon, as though projected by flames. Then, in the wake of the light came a distant hissing noise, which gradually grew in both volume and intensity.
I could feel eyes upon me, and I turned to see one of the Rhigan forewomen who would have sole responsibility for a single farming detail. Her loose cotton blouse was white and simply tailored, her body beneath it hard and heavyset. A thick skirt prevented scratches from the grasses as one walked amongst them with a scythe, and a pair of leather moccasins completed the ensemble. Maybe fifty years old, she had a light red bandanna knotted through her hair and burnished features that swelled outwards in their prominence, giving her the appearance of a large olive-skinned bullfrog.
She met my eye with a measured stare, and said in Ondian, ‘Storm.’ Five seconds later, the hissing outside the tent intensified to a roar, and the rain fell upon the Sholl in torrents.
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Go to Chapter 9 > > >