An army had broken through from the east two years ago. They did not destroy crops or buildings. They did murder people. They murdered brutally the leaders of the people. I had never heard this. Perhaps it was said to me, but I could not hear. Now I could hear because I was going into this country. Was it not the King’s country? Certainly! No?
An army returns through the same country, wounded. Both are wounded, both the country and the army. The people are wounded to the point of survival. They have no leaders. Ordered leadership, no. Natural leadership, perhaps. Natural leadership brings envy and unrest. Hordes follow natural leadership. The people are not merely a horde; they are a bloodthirsty horde. A natural leader gives them a sharp point. No, not a sharp point. A natural leader gives them a blunt weapon. No, not a blunt weapon. What is a weapon that tears with a powerful grip, tears flesh? Teeth. A people wounded to the point of survival sees their attacker with his back turned, unsuspecting. A natural leader gives the people a taste of blood, and they drink their own death. This is a people dead. This is a people which did not survive its wounding. For two years this people has torn at itself, tasting blood, having now an insatiable hunger for blood, and more than blood, for fire, for everything destructive. These people have become barbarians. They had ample property, treasuries of wealth, ample stores of food; crops and buildings had been spared by this king from the east, with a far smaller population to support. They had no need for ordered leadership to live easily. And so each to his own, without allegiance to anyone or any principles. Their wrath certainly had spread beyond the countryside beneath the mountains.
These people were the King’s own people; these people are my people. These people swarm the roads and passes of all the land between the city and the North country.
One of the main characters of The Primal Flowers describes, in brief, a lengthy journey he took in behalf of his brother.
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Bandits, highwaymen, and robbers are of a sort of man who is not terribly clever. The rare exception is not stationing himself and his crew in the empty parts of the world to rob the occasional wanderer, from whom he cannot prosper. Instead, the brutal and the lover of violence stations himself in these parts, setting a lookout in plain view. Whenever the lookout did manage to spot me first, birds and animals who do not exist suddenly began to call to each other, and the road-hardened traveler does his best not to buckle under the sheer comedy of the affair. Most of these were overgrown boys who had nothing better to do than prey on the stupid. Even the weak learn to travel in pairs or caravans. As for me, I had nothing better to do than play the idiot.
If I spotted the lookout or any obvious ambush before they spotted me, I generally wound my way back and up and around, using a landmark to guide myself through the wilderness until I was certain I had bypassed them. If they spotted me, I still wound my way back and up and around, looking for the more difficult terrain to pass by, in an effort to discourage these lazy numskulls. If they persisted, I sent a well-placed stone into the stupid maw of their lead scout before scurrying away into a hiding place. Fitness is its own advantage in this way.
The sun rose, burning away the night, giving me light by which to travel, then burning my skin, whereupon I sought meager shade among the scorched boulders and leafless brush, using my pack as a kind of tent, snoozing until the sun should make his way into the late afternoon, putting my shadow before me, whereupon I rose again to make tracks. When the sun set, I sat down and waited for the light of dawn, eating when I could, conserving water, refilling when I could. I tried to set aside one day a week to rest and worship God, but I kept losing count of the days. I did not trust myself to walk for six days before I rested for one, so I kept walking.
A caravan approached. I made the signs of peace, and when I was sure they would not kill me, I approached. Their ambassador came forward.
My bookie would lose his shirt giving odds on your survival.
In the first months, I was able to understand their language, though they came from east of the mountains. The Great Southern Route was not the thick edge of a net of roads, as in our lands, but it was a trunk, its branches reaching north into the flat plateaus of these people. They were bearing every sort of fine good: nuts, dried fruits, dried meats, spices, all exotic, their tapestries, their pottery, their armament surpluses. These last made for great conversation, and even an exchange of stories. They were innovating with copper and stone, just as we were, inlaying the copper into the stone, improving the strength of the copper and preserving the integrity of the stone, so that the weapon was more lethal more reliably. On occasion, if we were able to establish total trust, we held martial contests, which I lost consistently, causing them to laugh, punctuated by a variation of this joke: “My bookie would lose his shirt giving odds on your survival.” I laughed with them and winked at their wise men.
Just when I began to believe, as an article of faith, that the mountains would never end, I was ejected into a vast, steaming, sun-scorched swamp humming with biting flies. There I began to be unable to understand the language of the caravaners. There was no longer any exchange of information, no swapping of stories, and no conversation. The sound of their voices became mockery to my ears. I began to go mad.
My madness quickly dissipated into the stink of this country when the ululations of my adversary pierced my ears. His body was upon mine, and I was falling to the ground. He had leapt upon me from a rock in plain view. My head had been down, and my ears heard nothing but buzzing and the occasional slap of my hand upon my senseless neck. They heard plainly now the noise of the deep places, and my neck felt plainly now the grappling tentacles of death. His mates were rushing toward me, adding to the noise. Soon, they would strangle the life out of me.
It was easy enough to shake the boy off me: I pushed myself up and, with him entangled around me, rushed backwards against the rock from which he had leapt. Indeed, his arms came unloosed, and I was able to breathe, while his breath suddenly escaped in that wonderful guttural utterance: “Oof!” I wheeled on him, striking him on top of the head with the peen of my sword. When he reached for his head, I kicked him in the mouth. For an eye-blink I paused over him, searching eternity for whether I should spare his life. I thrust my sword through his throat, ending the debate and bringing me back into the actualities of the moment.
A renewed cry from his mates propelled me further. His hand let his dagger fall, which I quickly snatched. Wheeling again, I threw it at them. It was not lethal, but it was effective, slicing a piece of face off the one leading the way, so he fell to his knees, holding the blood close to his face with his hands. His mates paused. I pulled the sword out of the leaper’s throat, severing his carotid artery, which became a fountain of blood for several seconds, about two of which I witnessed. I ran.
I learned the first words of their language, which was quite musical. “We will find you.” They repeated it into the evening, making only half-hearted attempts at finding me. I relaxed, knowing they didn’t want to find me, for as stupid as they were, they wanted to live for another day of robbing and banditry. It was fun. When I closed my eyes, I heard him choke on my sword.
That night, I moved in the darkness, to get away from him, whose eyes opened even during those two seconds as a fountainhead.
“It is a place of great stench,” I was rehearsing my speech to Arret for when I finally set foot in his home, “but the people are of the cleanest kind. They wash constantly, and they know how to wash away the filth of their cities, individual by individual, pot by pot.” I passed through the city I had seen beneath my feet to the west when I passed by the King’s Spire. Most of it was gray, in ruins, its walls overthrown, its houses and palaces completely destroyed. Bits of mortar held together bricks and stones, but they were lying in the open, not even removed into piles for reuse. There was no inn, only the song of laments styled by wise men, whose words I understood clearly.