A TRIP UPRIVER (a)
River Sea 3057.7.22
Aboard the creaking ship Angren and the wizard, undisguised, leaned side by side on a rail at the bows and watched the river seals skimming ahead. It was a delight to watch them: playful, carefree, ecstatic. Arcs of droplets hung in the air like rainbows in the wake of their high leaping. Who could ever think of war in the face of such innocent beauty? Who could think of death?
Seama sighed: who indeed? Deep within him Seama knew that life was not intended to suffer war. Life was supposed to be joy, innocent joy, untrammelled by violence and tunes of glory. And it was by some perversity in nature, or in man, that this purpose, this divine intention was ruined. Too often there was hatred, pride, fear and lust; too often did those feelings lead to evil deeds, horror and death. Seama was himself a dealer in death: he doled it out like a bitter medicine. He had learned to fight fire with fire, but it had not escaped him that no matter how many times he turned the tables, applied the medication, no matter what power of magic he brought against it, somehow evil always survived, always thrived. He felt sometimes that he was approaching the problem from the wrong direction. What he wanted was to eradicate the disease but all he could do was address the symptoms. The answer eluded him. As the years rolled by Seama came no nearer to achieving his goal and, in a mood that played with defeatism, he had come to worry that his gut feeling was wrong, that joy was not attainable, that life was meant to be perpetual struggle.
"A penny for them," said Angren, seeing his friend with a frown on his face.
"More than enough!" Seama replied. "I was philosophising when I should have been thinking. You could have my thoughts for nothing if I could make room for better ones. It's more than a war, Angren, more than politics. Evil is the root of it. There are enemies everywhere you look. Pars, Aegarde, Gothery, Masachea: they're all at odds with one another and if I’m right it’s no accident. I think some terrible plan underpins every stupid event that's happened for the past six months. Someone out there is sowing seeds of ruin and if we don't act quickly we'll reap a disaster."
"We're after some farmer then?"
"Do you have to make a joke of everything?"
"No, I just enjoy it. Seriously though, I always thought that when a tree's diseased you chop it down, and you burn it so the seeds won't grow again."
"That's what I want Angren, but first we have to find the tree." He looked out over the waters. Far ahead, beyond the bounds of the River-Sea, on the edge of sight was a hazy blue line that marked the beginning of the Dedicae massif. The distance was nothing. "And when we do,” he continued briskly, “Let’s hope our axe is sharp enough, and that we don't get caught underneath when it goes."
Angren spat over the side. "We're warriors, aren't we? We find a way. No point worrying about failure and death - well not much. We just do what we can. The good'll win in the end."
"You think so? Sounds like wishful thinking to me; you've been listening to the priests."
"You've got to believe in something."
"Well I wish I could be as sure. Perhaps I've been in too many fights - it makes you cynical after a while."
They fell silent and opened their eyes and ears to what was about them: the wind, the gulls, the seals and, dispassionately working against their progress, the cold grey flood of the Hypodedicus, mightiest of waterways.
It would be misleading to describe the Hypodedicus as a river at this point. Here they sailed an inland sea, still powerful in its current, at its extremities one hundred and twenty miles wide and two hundred and fifty long, yet rarely deeper than twenty feet. Eight thousand years before Seama was born the bedrock turned over deep below Asteranor and threw up solidifying lines of molten basalt, like glowing worms on the green surface of the lands now home to the nations of Pars, Gothery and Aegarde. One of these thrust lines crossed and dammed the great river. Gathering up the melts of many winters the river pooled outwards and backwards, filling the shallow valley, drowning whatever could not move: the trees rotted, the crude dwellings of an ancient, now forgotten race were ground into mud. Eventually the lake swelled to the lip of the cliff that contained it and forced a ragged, bouncing path down into the soft earth below the fault.
Now in Seama's day the river was settled in its course and, to those who peopled its banks, the Hypodedicus seemed eternal in its long journey from the High Dedicae to Knot Island and the Errensea. The River was the unchanging bastion of their lives. And it was no great divider as a sea: men had rowed across the waters between Pars and Gothery, though sailing was the more obvious and less exhausting method. Nevertheless, whenever the wind dropped, it was wise to down anchor against the still driving flood. From Riverport to the nearest Gotherian landing the mariner must first journey north and then ride the current down into the saving dead-water on the western shore.
And here they were, tacking slowly upriver, but Banya's Harbour was not Seama’s destination. Banya's first landfall in Gothery was dictated by geographical considerations: the cliffs in the south and the salt marshes in the north. In later times the same reasons were the cause of continued traffic through Banya's Harbour, which in turn was responsible for the great prosperity of the residents. But traffic and wealth makes for a busy town where watching eyes may not be distinguished from thousands of others. It was not only Seama who wanted to avoid those eyes. Mador had nearly thirty of his favoured agents on board, all set on their various missions by the orders the wizard had carried. They could have gained entry severally into Gothery but it would have been remarkable if their passing could have gone unnoticed. It was decided then that they should together take a lonely route through the northern marshlands, keeping clear of the three or four villages and the main town of Fletton, until they were well settled on their different paths. Some would meet up with other agents, some would travel alone; dependent on their purpose some would travel by night while others could travel openly by day, taking on one guise or another or none at all as became necessary.
They sailed northwards ten miles out from the coast of Pars for the length of two days' journey and then, at nightfall, the Captain turned their boat westward. As the thin moon came out to look at their passage, those still awake smiled to see that the seals continued to follow them, indefatigable in their play. It was a good sign. Many sailors believed the seals warded off the Spirit of the Waters: a spirit that could be benign or terrible at a whim and was never to be trusted. The more sceptical recognized that the river seals were intelligent enough to keep well clear of danger. The River-Sea was a perilous environment. Common were the ever-shifting sand bars that made navigation near the coast a nightmare for the inexperienced, and there were ancient boulders just below the surface that made life treacherous for those who strayed from the main routes. And to lose your boat on the River Sea, mostly only four fathoms deep, would very likely be fatal. The water was cold, the current frighteningly strong, and creatures other than the friendly seals scoured the depths. There were tiny fish with sharp teeth that travelled in shoals of agonizing death: the Schiff. There were large snake-like reptiles, the pangalori, with paddles instead of legs that made them incredibly fast, and some of these reached tremendous lengths of over one hundred feet. But it was the floating jellies, so transparent as to be invisible, that were most to be feared. Some as large as five feet across, they had a poison that paralysed before the inverted gut slowly enveloped its victim. As it began to digest the membrane turned a hideous red - popular lore said it was better to meet a red jelly than a clear one.
Few children of Pars or Gothery learned to swim in the River-Sea. Taking it for what it was, the sailors learned to ride the currents in tense safety. The seals swimming alongside were truly a welcome sight.
Next: A Trip Upriver (b)
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
12/5/2012 wkj fantasy
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