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The Old Issue seems timely enough today

"He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
Set his guards about us, as in Freedom’s name.

He shall break his judges if they cross his word;
He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord.

He shall peep and mutter; and the night shall bring
Watchers ’neath our window, lest we mock the King—

Hate and all division; hosts of hurrying spies;
Money poured in secret, carrion breeding flies.

Strangers of his counsel, hirelings of his pay,
These shall deal our Justice: sell—deny—delay.

We shall drink dishonour, we shall eat abuse
For the Land we look to—for the Tongue we use.

We shall take our station, dirt beneath his feet,
While his hired captains jeer us in the street.

Cruel in the shadow, crafty in the sun,
Far beyond his borders shall his teachings run.

Sloven, sullen, savage, secret, uncontrolled,
Laying on a new land evil of the old—

Long-forgotten bondage, dwarfing heart and brain—
All our fathers died to loose he shall bind again."
--From Rudyard Kipling, 'The Old Issue'

I finally wrote something!

Here it is, although it's quite a mess, but hey, I wrote.

Midhir, King of the Guarded Realm, walked the forest, and it was wrong.

He had been born here, when the forest was only the deep heart of a much greater realm, one thousand, seven hundred, and three years before. This had been the final stronghold, when the conquerors came. The forest was what his people kept, what they were able to defend.

Two hundred and one years after that defeat, when he was still young, he had become torein: sole, absolute ruler. And since then, he had extended the tendrils of his mind, the roots of his soul, into every redwood needle, every hidden dark canyon, and every briefly sunlit height. There was no inch of this place he did not command. There was nothing here he did not love. The Guarded Realm was bordered with a wall of thorns, protected by hundreds of keen-eyed archers: both magic and strength of arms. No one could come in unless Midhir allowed it; no one leave. He had not passed that border himself in more than a thousand years. The Realm was his power.

Not anymore.

He had been walking along a ridge-top path, in the scent of bay trees, wondering what to do about his ten-year-old son Meilir, the boy's latest adventure: redesigning the lock on his chamber door so that nobody could get in. Midhir was more amused than angry at that, but the redesigns, the inventions, the constant questions, made him worry. Still, he had to smile at the thought of the boy --

No more smiles soon.

He stopped. What had he heard?

A thrush flew away through the trees with a chup of alarm. The creatures of his forest did not flee Midhir.

What had he heard? He extended his senses. Sunlight on leaves. The trickle of a stream away in the canyon—

Nothingness. Dark. Cold. Blind, deaf, trapped –

He found himself on his knees, hands clutching his head, where pain reverberated. He forced his eyes open; saw trees, the path. No enemy; no one at all.

There were others among his folk with power, but there had never been anyone to challenge him: not one who could, nor any who would want to. He was beloved.

But there must be someone.

Midhir stood up, shaking. He carried no weapon. Why ever should he need one, here in the heart of his realm?

“Show yourself,” he said, and extended his thought, reaching out from the ridge, making himself see with inward sight the place where the nothingness had been. Carefully – he would not admit to himself that it was fearfully – he circled the place. It was a real place, not some construct of the mind. It was dear to him, and someone had taken it from him. Excised it from his power. He felt the absence as a pain.

There, deep in the ancient heart where no one dwelled, trees grew that he had known for all his life. Some were older than him. A waterfall plunged there down smooth gold sandstone cliffs. This was not some little border incursion, some Western brigand felling a few oaks on the boundary. This struck at the soul of Midhir’s realm. Such anger rose in him that the bay trees twisted in a furious wind.

He would go there. Now. He could let himself go into the forest, move like the air, and stand once again in his own body in that place a week’s journey away. For many centuries he had owned that power.

But not now. His feet stayed rooted. The air did not take him.

Midhir stood, astonished, heart racing. Who has done this?

He looked at his hands. On their pale skin, blue-black runes flickered. He sourced and focused his power thus. Now the runes slid and flew away. It seemed they dimmed and faded. But that could not be. He had drawn them on his skin himself with madweed and blackberry ink, using a silversteel needle.

He tried again, now aiming not for the stolen forest heart, but for a spot just outside it, a grove he knew, as he knew all the groves. But it was hard. Hard, and it took his strength, moving as if through ice, not air. He reached his aim panting, struggling to catch his breath.

There was nothing to be seen. Now, here in the flesh, he could see the trees, three hundred feet high and more, wide as towers, with the distant sun just touching the upper citadels of their trunks. He could hear the waterfall. But still the place was gone from his power. “Show yourself!” he shouted, so that his voice echoed. “Who dares invade the Guarded Realm?”

Now there was laughter, cold and mocking. Midhir stared into the trees. He saw no one. Then something flickered in his mind, a sending. An owl, sitting silent on a high branch, saw the laugher in the woods, and sent. It saw in its bird-fashion, quick and bright. And then the sending cut off, and from the trees ahead there came a screech and a brief, broken flutter of grey wings. But it had sent enough for him to see. His fists clenched. “Come out! You dare to challenge me? Then dare to show your face – Keilta.”

Midhir had been torein for more than a thousand years. He should have nothing to fear from anyone. Least of all this man – not some Enemy’s creature, nor some strange new being as he had half-suspected, but his own young subject, known to him. He knew perfectly well what Keilta was and what he could do.

Or maybe not. For I did not know he could do this.

The thought of the cold blind trap came back to him, and he did fear, but would not show it.

Keilta came into a dim beam of sunlight, tall and pale, his hair like charcoal shadow. Smiling.

“This is not the West,” Midhir said. “We do not fight duels for kingship here. Give back what you have stolen, kneel, and maybe I will let you live.”

“Oh, is it not the West?” Keilta approached, smiling still, reaching to brush a leaf from Midhir’s shoulder. Midhir thought to strike the impudent hand away. He found he could not quite make himself move. Wherefore such fear? Why am I so . . .

“Not the West,” Keilta went on, “when you lie down with the horsefolk High-King? When you betray your race, yet dare seek to rule us still?”

“It is not your place to question my friendships.”

Keilta’s smile twisted. “When you would sell us to our enemies? What are we now – a remnant, a relic. Half of us have Western names. All of us can speak their accursed tongue. We are losing everything that we are. And if you think that means nothing, scarcely thirty years ago they attacked us. How many died?”

“That was not Selirien’s fault. He took no part.” In large part it was my fault. “Keilta, the Winter killed many of the People, and now the wighten threaten us. We cannot any longer hold the West as enemies, nor cling to some nonsense that they are a lesser race. Selirien is no longer their High-King. And, though you have no right to accuse me of it, I will tell you that I have given him no power in this realm. I have sold nothing, nor given what was not mine to give. It is you who have stolen.”

“Not sold, not given. And yet you were his concubine, and bore his halfbreed child. Bad enough that your whore daughter married a wight. She died, at least. Now you spread yourself for horsefolk filth.”

Midhir’s blood seemed to turn to a thin winter trickle. He had never intended anyone to know who Meilir’s father was. Selirien himself did not know he had a son. Did not even know that Midhir had the shapestrength for such a deed. How does Keilta know?

“My son is none of your business, nor have I told anyone his other parent’s name. You have no true grievance. This is all pretense."

“He taints the realm by existing,” Keilta said. “That makes him all of our business.”

Keilta began to pace around him, circling. Midhir refused to turn. The voice from behind him chilled the back of his neck. “The mongrel pup had better be put down.”

Deep roots crack stone. Midhir spun around and struck bare-handed with all the force he could summon. The ground heaved under their feet. The giant redwoods writhed in a screaming of splintered wood. The crash of rockfall echoed.

Keilta caught his wrist. Fingers through flesh, driven into bone. Blood streamed. Cold blindness washed over him. He stumbled. Only Keilta’s grasp held him upright.

“You are nothing,” Keilta said, “and I will cut out the boy’s heart and send it to your horsefolk whore, and when he comes for vengeance I will wind his guts around the Heart-Tree while he lives.”

“Try it,” Midhir gasped. “Selirien will crush you.”

He was falling. He could not see. Somewhere, Keilta’s mockery.

*
He woke, blind, bone-chilled. A ring of frozen pain circled his right wrist. He felt the blood, cold now, sticky, soaking his sleeve. The wound had not healed. With his left hand he fearfully touched his eyes, but they seemed unharmed. Then he reached out, and felt the wood, inches from his face, tight around his body, live wood of a living tree, but deaf to him, uncaring.

This place. This trap.

This . . . punishment.

Years fell away. Undead memory struck him.

There was no escape from this prison. There never had been. Still, he called on powers that had deserted him. Useless. He shouted Meilir’s name until his throat gave way. At last he beat the unyielding wood until the fingers of his left hand broke; and then he cringed there, silent, in despair.

In the distance, Keilta laughed.

*

Midhir woke with his face in bloody mud and trampled grass. His head ached, and when he sat up his bronze helmet tore from its broken strap and fell to the ground.

Around him, death. Bodies, in a cold High Plains dawn. The enemy had gone. He still felt hoofbeats in the ground.

They had stepped down from their tall horses and as their boots hit the grass they changed before his horrified eyes to things with fangs and claws and spines and venom stings. Many of Midhir’s army had turned and run, seeing that. He had pissed down his leg with terror, and stayed.

To no good. The Westerners were too strong, too quick. He crawled to the nearest body. Obsidian arrowheads, scattered in the grass, crunched under his gloved hands.

It was a Westerner. Now, dead, she was stinking and slimed with some foul substance Midhir feared to touch. Alive, she had been lion-clawed. Beyond her lay Evair, once ruler of these lands, now gutted.

Midhir had been so proud when he marched out with the army of the forest realm, their armor shining. He was of neither high birth nor great prowess, but he had served his Queen in burning out a nest of bandits on the border the year before, and that qualified him to lead an army. Or so he had thought.

I was wrong. This war is something none of us have ever seen.

He walked among the tattered bodies. Battlefield-birds were already landing. The survivors – if there had been any survivors – must have left Midhir for dead. Perhaps they did not check too carefully, considering how I failed them.

But he could not let sorrow cripple him. It might be that not one had lived to warn his Queen that the horsefolk were not only aggressors, not only conquerors, but owned terrible powers. He must reach home.

Two days later, he found that the Western army had made camp at the edge of the Forest. He crept around them, hiding terrified when their sentries rode by, and at last was able to escape into the trees. Where warriors of his own people took him and brought him in chains before the Queen and her council.

At the feet of Dairdran, his Queen, he bowed his head, smelling his own reek, struggling not to weep.

“I believed you were but young and arrogant,” she said. “I did not believe you false.”

“But false you were,” one of the older councillors said.

“No!” He forced himself to look up, to meet their accusing eyes. “A fool. Yes. But I am no traitor. I own what I did. I let us astray and there were deaths and they weigh down my soul –" He had to stop, choking.

“You overact,” the councillor said. “You sold us to the enemy. What did they promise you?”

“I am no traitor. We were defeated because they have a power. They can change their shapes. Even to warriors none of us can stand against; even to monsters, to venomous things. You must believe me! Even now they are at the border!”

Dairdran’s green eyes disdained him. “Monsters,” one of the guards at the door began, “what nonsense. Give him to us and we’ll beat the lies out of him.”

“Changing shape,” another councillor scoffed. “This needs no accusation of treachery. The boy panicked. He is merely a coward.”

Dairdran held up her hand for silence. “He is not lying. No. He saw something. We shall take this into account when we face that army even now encamped upon our border.”

Midhir drew a breath of relief. But she was still speaking. “You did lead our warriors north, Midhir. You did come back alone, and scarcely hurt. Those few survivors who have reached us have little to say of your bravery.”

Because I was knocked unconscious at the first charge! But he could say nothing. It did not seem like much of an excuse.

“A truer soul would have died with his army. I name you a weak and worthless thing. I sentence you to seven years’ imprisonment in the Tree.”

The council room went still. “My queen,” someone said, “no one has ever survived more than four years, and that one, well, as you remember . . .”

“Seven years,” said Daidran. “And we shall see if he is either weak or worthless when he comes out.”

Midhir did not understand what would happen to him until they took him deep into the heart of the woods and the great tree gaped open at Dairdran’s command.

Seven years. Lightless. Cold. Blind. Alone.

*
He woke from memory to find the memory real. His fingers had healed, but the deep wound on his right wrist had not. Cold; dark. He could sense nothing beyond the wooden walls of prison. The loss of the constant knowledge of his realm was torment, worse than the wound. For centuries his mind had been bounded only by the borders of his kingdom. Unthinkingly he reached out: nothing. Trapped in his skull as his body was pent in the tree.

Think. Keilta will kill Meilir. May have . . . have already done so.

But no. Ythr would protect him; Summer would. Keilta is no intimate of mine. He must make up some plan, some story, to get Meilir alone.

And Meilir, ten years old, was capable of astonishing Midhir with his intelligence.
Sometimes Midhir thought his son was a new kind of creature entirely. No, he would not go stupidly with a stranger.

But his intelligence is all of crafts and devices. Would he sense danger? Would he know hate when he saw it?

Think, curse you.


When Midhir came to rule he had ordered the prison-Tree cut down and burned. This could not be that tree.

In the end, Daidran had stood the Westerners off through a combination of desperate courage, diplomacy, and bloodroot-tipped arrowheads. Perhaps it was partly that the horsefolk had little use for forest. They made a treaty, and centuries passed. The Enemy arose, and killed many horse-folk, and some of what was now called the Guarded Realm. After so many years and so many deaths, and perhaps a deliberate burial of the past, the horsefolk’s descendants no longer remembered they had come as conquerors. Selirien did not know it.

And if he knew?

No time for that now. Shapestrength had also been lost to the Enemy’s wars, becoming secret knowledge held only by a few. Selirien was shapestrong. Midhir had taught himself the skill long ago, though it had not come easily to him.

Was Keilta’s anger really for the lands now more than a millennium lost? Or was it for the more recent war? A stupid war. My fault. My failure to teach my daughter honesty.

Mirelend. He forced the grief at the thought of her away. No time for that. Meilir lived still . . . might live . . .

Selirien had not fought in that war, but still some of Midhir’s folk held lasting hatred for all the horsefolk.

And Keilta is among those, obviously. Someone I never really regarded, whose enmity I never respected. I was complacent. And now . . .

He found himself struggling again, smearing blood from his wrist over smooth cold wood.

I gave Selirien no power in this realm. Nor did he ask for any. I asked him if we might extend our borders into lands left empty by the Winter. He said me no. Forcefully. No, neither of us is the other’s pawn. But Keilta does not believe it. Or does not care. Why should his road to power not rest upon a lie?

But he cannot know about the prison-Tree.

Can he?

No. There were few left old enough to remember. And they had no reason to speak of it. Certainly, they would think twice before telling the story of how their King had once been punished.

When they had brought him out after seven years, he had looked at his own body and seen himself gaunt and filthy, with bitten-off fingers and bloody, torn bite-marks from his own sharp teeth up and down his stick-thin arms. The sun burned into his eyes, into his brain. Slowly, his vision cleared. It was then that he realized he was seeing through the eyes of a doe, standing secret at the meadow’s edge.

He came back to himself. He looked at Daidran. Her eyes were the color of redwood needles in winter. She nodded once.

When, many years after, the Queen chose to die, she named Midhir her successor. By that time, no one called him weak, or worthless, or coward, or traitor.

But he had pushed the memory of the Tree away, beyond the boundary of dreams. Of course. It was not such an experience as anyone would want to remember.

But now I am here again, when it should be impossible. No. It is impossible.

But the wood was unyielding. He could not climb up inside the trunk; he remembered trying that before. Nor had he been able to dig through the hard, cold dirt and roots beneath him. Neither bloodletting nor starvation had freed him into death.

Nor had wanting to be free. Against his will, Midhir’s mind fled in desperate circles like a trapped bird. Lying to Selirien, drugging him, marking him with runes, for his own sake, yes, out of love, yes, but done in lies. Trying to show him the past, the conquest, but too afraid to reveal it in a way the Westerner would remember and understand. Mirelend, who went out, who found a lover outside the boundaries, and died of him. Mirelend’s mother, who went out to fight the Enemy, and died of that. Selirien once more, unattainable noble of another country, beloved of his own consort, ruling a land that Midhir could never see, Gwarohon in the mountains. Meilir, whose parentage no one could know.

Lies, lies and secret spells. The border was one of power as well as policy. Midhir’s magic was all bound up within his land. Were he to cross that line, he would be no king, no shapechanger; mere nothing. The runes would vanish from his skin. He might return, but his power to protect his people and his forest would be gone. That was the other side of the choice he had made, for the sake of the Guarded Realm. He loved the place. But he could not leave it.

Trapped. Trapped in lies and borders and things I cannot have and things I will not say.

Oh let me go. I would not be this anymore.

He was weeping. His wounded wrist pressed painfully against his face. The smell of blood . . . and of madweed. Poison, indeed. But not so damaging to him, who drank madweed wine at every dark of the moon to inspire visions, as it might have been to another.

And so I must be somewhere else. Keilta has done something to my mind.

He wondered with a shudder where his body truly was, and what Keilta might be doing to it. But that could not matter now.

He had made himself forget this cold and pain and the loneliness and despair that were worst of all. All he had kept were the six runes he had learned, etched into his soul; the runes that gave him inner sight, the deep power over and connection with his land. The rest had been too terrible to remember. For more than a thousand years, he had not let himself think of it.

But now my mind has sent me here for a reason. When I was here before, I learned the six. Is there now more to learn?

Seven years of torment. Seven years – but only six runes?

Midhir sucked in a cold painful breath, gathered all his faltering will, and made himself remember. The seventh year. Alone, alone, gnawing off his own fingers, starving, the bitter taste of his sluggish blood, cold and blind, and the guilt. Fifty warriors dead on the battlefield at High Plains, and he had led them, and neither saved them nor died with them. “Forgive me,” he had begged, groveling in his prison. No answer. He despaired. Surrendered. Down into madness. Gone.

At the bottom of the vortex, at the edge of death, the seventh rune. It hung before him, in memory and in the now, terrible against the dark, sparking like ball-lightning.
Sovereignty. Rulership. Its other side was sacrifice.

He seized the rune with his hand, with his mind. It burned. He grasped it and, screaming, woke.

*
No darkness. Light. Painful light, and hard rock under his shoulders. The prison-Tree was gone. Someone screaming his name. Meilir. He tried to sit up. Shackles on his wrists slammed him to the ground.

He opened his eyes. Keilta stood with Meilir beside the sandstone waterfall. A knife to the boy’s throat. “Oh, well done,” Keilta said. “So much for memories. I thought to let you free after a while, so you could swear your fealty to me over your bastard's body. But this is as good.”

Meilir was not struggling. His blue eyes, Selirien’s eyes, were wide. A trickle of blood ran down his neck. He was only a boy, not shapestrong, not a warrior. Woundshock could kill him easily.

Midhir reached out. The forest did not answer. He reached farther, beyond the circle of Keilta’s influence. And called. The runes flared painfully on his skin. A new one marked his wounded wrist, shining black, sharp like thorns and spearpoints. Please. I do not command you as your king. I beg. And I make you my pledge forever in return.

“Say it,” Keilta said. “Say it, so he can hear you. He’s not one of the People at all. He’s illspawn, halfbreed. Our enemy’s son.”

From somewhere, Midhir dredged up a mocking smile, and offered it.

“Say it.” The point of the knife dug in. “Say that I am King of the Guarded Realm. And you, you are nothing but a dirty slave.”

A rustle, like a distant storm. Keilta did not seem to hear. Keep him talking.

"How did you know who Meilir's father was? I thought I had kept it so secret. I thought you were stupid, Keilta. But you are not. You have outwitted me."

Will he lap up such nonsense? The sound in the trees grew louder. Keilta said, "I've followed you for a long time, fool that you are. I followed you when you met the horse-king the year after the Winter. I saw what you two did together. I was sickened. I knew then what you were."

Midhir remembered that night under the moon. It had been a joy he never expected to feel.

"I kept watching you then. I knew. I built my powers. When he came here again all scarred and sorry for himself, I did not need to follow you. I saw you in a pool of water. I saw what you did, and I saw you swell up with child afterward. I was the only one to question what manner of beast the father was. And now I will be King. Say it. Say it, slave."

“If I say it, will you let him go?”

"Say it," Keilta growled, and the knife dug into Meilir's neck.

“I am nothing,” Midhir said. “But you . . . you . . . are . . .”

A wave burst through the trees, descended through the air. Wings. Keilta looked around.

“But you are dead,” Midhir said. “Meilir, run to me!”

Striking talons. Cold yellow eyes. Beating wings, grey and brown, red and black. Keilta dropped Meilir, struck out with the knife. He was shouting something: some rune of command. Juncos, wrens, cried out and dropped, tattered and bloodied. An owl screamed like a soul in torment.

“Please,” Midhir said aloud. “I beg your help.” Meilir reached him, sobbing, picked up a rock, started to hammer at the shackles.

Keilta staggered. His face was red and torn. One eye was gone. A peregrine tore at the other. Midhir reached out, searching. The land rushed back, all that Keilta had stolen. The trees around him. The rock under him. The rock . . .

He spoke a rune. The sandstone shattered. The waterfall roared. Keilta fell. Birds hovered, singing triumph.

Midhir and Meilir walked to the edge, hand in hand. The water ran red, and then ran clear.

*
They stood at the border, past the wall of poison-thorned roses, at the edge of the realm Midhir had made. “But,” Meilir said, “but, Father, I wish you would come with me.”

“I cannot,” Midhir said. “I am bound here. The King has duties.” Even when duty is a sacrifice. “Listen to your guards, mind you. And be courteous to everyone in Gwarohon. Give . . . Give the lord Selirien my regards. He will teach you many things. He has great builders and armorers, and you will learn all they know.”

“But,” Meilir said, “but I will come back. Soon.”

“Yes,” said Midhir. Lying. He hoped it would be the last time. But of course that was impossible.

He watched them ride away; the sun’s last glint on Meilir’s red hair, the same color as his own. He stretched a hand out into the sunlight. The thorn-marks of the runes faded, running like water.

The King has duties.

He turned, and went back into the trees.

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Whitewater Preserve to "Badlands Pass"

Leaving the big, green cottonwoods at Whitewater Preserve (now possibly part of Sand to Snow National Monument; I'm not sure the jurisdictional status has been finalized), head north on the PCT across a floodplain full of polished stones and passing whole varieties of interesting geology. The Whitewater River comes down in several small but energetic channels. Follow the PCT up a dramatic gorge with Death Valley-like badlands structures and a view of Mt. San Jacinto. The top of the gorge is a ridge "pass" marking the divide between the Whitewater drainage and the next creek over. This makes a natural turnaround point with a nice view (of course, the PCT goes north all the way to Canada so possibilities are endless).

About 5 miles, not strenuous, but not for hot weather. Lots of birds, even in winter, including large numbers of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and two ravens in love snuggling on a branch. The desert bighorns weren't in evidence yesterday but can usually be seen on the cliffs.

Whitewater has a picnic area, ponds stocked with fish, good restrooms, and currently requires no fee or pass. At times the picnic area can be very crowded and there were people on the trails even on a winter Monday.

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2016 Breeders' Cup



It makes me realize how magical it was to see Zenyatta win.
When I was twenty-one, we fought the Battle of the Plains.

Now at that time many of the lordships stood where they are now, but with two important exceptions. The Ilanarai lands were well to the south, even somewhat west of Landscathe, and east of Southport, along what was then the southern part of the Road. And a little to their north, in a land of oak-crowned hills, stood a large fortified palace called Oak Citadel. That was the seat of the riganhei in those days. It was where Branntur, the riganh, my father, lived, and I spent my childhood there.

But I did not live in Oak Citadel at that time. Since I was eighteen, I had lived at Gwarohon, to the north, in the foothills of the Coast Range. This had been a separate holding belonging to my father, and he had given it to me, though not bothering to hide that he thought my plans for the place were foolish. As heir, I received some tribute of my own, and I spent most of it on paying builders. The fortress of Gwarohon which now stands was then well begun, though not complete. I had been entrusted by my father with a retinue of fifty warriors.

I say entrusted, but he had commanded me to report to him weekly, so when a messenger-bird with a blue-and-silver leg band landed on my balcony, I thought to find his customary detailed and assertive reply to my most recent missive. Instead I found a bloodstained scrap of vellum.

All the southern lands and dwellings had been destroyed by the Liar’s forces. Numbers of blankfaces and draugar such as we had never imagined boiled forth from Landscathe. We had thought the southern realms were prepared. They were not. They were all aflame before any defense could muster. To this day they have never been resettled. Branntur did not describe what must have been a desperate flight, everyone seizing weapons and rushing to saddle horses, treasures thrust into saddlebags or left behind, children crying, homes and possessions put to the torch so that the enemy could use nothing. Nor did he tell the story of a fighting retreat east along the Road – for the way to Southport and its ships was blocked – towards Landscathe, ever closer to the hordes that continued to issue from the Pit like ants. Branntur chose speed, the Road, rather than a slower and more uncertain path through the Misty Hills, and he and the three Ilanarai brothers and the rulers of smaller realms lost many warriors before ever they reached the open plains west of the Guarded Realm. That was where I was now summoned.

I was, I read, to take command of Pelambarai and High Plains forces also summoned southward by messenger-bird. As if, I thought, Karra or Roanmare would ever allow me to command them!

But then I realized what the dispatch really meant. Oak Citadel burned to the ground. People I had known all my life, dead. Tears came to my eyes, and I angrily brushed them away.

It occurred to me also that now what else would my father do but take Gwarohon for his own? With this thought came a feeling of crushing despair. But that was unworthy; I pushed it aside, and went to rally my little warband.

Branntur had clearly chosen our rallying spot for its open ground. Here, on the grassy low hills and ridges, our mounted archers and swordsmen could use their superior speed to cut down blankfaces easily. Even draugar could be surrounded and destroyed. This was a battlefield well-chosen for a Western army, whose strength lay in speed and mobility.

How well these tactics worked you will soon see.

It was not hard to find the army. My father had rallied his own warriors, those of the Ilanarai whose lands had also been overrun, those of Haven, and many little southern lands besides. Also, High Plains had beaten me there, while it appeared that Pelambar was somewhere on the road behind, so I did not have to assert myself over them. The great gathering of People and horses cast up a great plume of dust, a scent of metal, horses, woodsmoke and blood, a sound of shouts, commands shrilled on bone-flutes, rumbling hooves.

I directed my warband to make camp near the center, and went to find my father.

Branntur had set up his blue-and-silver tent, a grand edifice meant as a center of command, in the middle of the camp. Messengers hurried to and fro. His huge bay stallion snorted and pulled at its picket beside the tent. His herald stood by the tent door; when she saw me, she turned and said something inside.

I was arrayed in gleaming silversteel ringmail with an ice-blue-and-silver silk tabard, bearing, as all our regalia did, the silver sun of our House. I had a good golden-dun mare, which I left with a guard; I had a sabre forged in Pelambar at my side and a recurved bow of wood and horn, lacquered red, behind my saddle. My quiver was full of arrows headed with barbs to tear flesh and bodkins to pierce armor. I left my helmet with its horsehair plume slung over my saddlehorn, and I had braided my hair as neatly as it would tolerate. Rock-crystals and truesilver rings gleamed along my ears. In short, I looked as royal as I could make myself.

My father came out of his tent. The sun was setting, and torches had been lit for their beauty, though we do not need them to see in the dark. Their red light gleamed from his long black hair and reflected bloody from his blue eyes. I went to one knee.

“Well met, my heir,” Branntur said. “Come into the tent.”

I followed him. The herald nodded her head to me. Inside the tent were Branntur’s line-commander, Taren, and his armorer, Shanhai. The latter was cross-legged on the floor hammering bent rings out of a coat of mail. He smiled at me. I smiled back, relieved to see him there. Taren merely gave me a glance out of her cold hazel eyes. “Leave us for now,” Branntur told them, and they went.

There was Haven wine, fresh raw venison, and Ilanarai black plum sauce on a small table, and I could not help looking longingly at it, for we had ridden without stopping for several days. In particular, I wanted the wine. But I stood quietly and waited.

“What is this,” said Branntur, “that I hear of wighten?”

“There are a few warriors,” I said. “Some other tribe of their own kind persecute them. They will fight for us.”

“Some other tribe, et cetera,” Branntur said, “and so they came to you with this?”

The South was in flames and he wanted to chide me over wighten. “They came begging to the borders,” I said, “and I gave them a little land to live on, in return for their fealty.”

“Without asking my permission for the gift?”

It was hard to meet his eyes, but I managed to do that much. I had to look up, for he was considerably taller than I, and broader. Under my mail and padded jerkin and linen shirt I was drenched in cold, slimy sweat. “I thought, my liege, that my heir’s patrimony was mine to dispose of.”

Branntur, who could never stand still for long, began to pace. “Will you call in the earthworms next? What about the needy woodlice? The crippled crickets?”

“My riganh is pleased to jest,” I said.

He wheeled around. I thought he would strike me, and I flinched before I could make myself hold still. Perhaps then I saw a moment’s compunction in his eyes, but it did not last. “Scouts say there are wighten with the Enemy’s forces. Not sad little beggars, but heavily armed warriors in disciplined array.”

That was new, unheard of. Wighten came to us only as small bands of refugees from the East. They were short-lived, dull of senses, barbaric. Some of the males could fight; I had seen them as pitiable but perhaps of some little use.

“Those who have followed me are no friends of the Liar,” I said. “I swear it.”

“You had better be sure of that,” Branntur said, “because of all the idiotic, crack-brained, ridiculous schemes you have ever come up with in your eternal quest to permanently embarrass me with the utter incompetence of my heir, befriending wighten is the worst. Well, the worst so far. Who knows what stupidity you may come up with tomorrow?”

“My liege,” I said, keeping my voice very level, “may I hear your orders for the battle to come?”

“You will keep your warriors in the thick of the fight, and yourself there with them. Some of our allies are not friends. You have never been in a battle.” He began pacing again. “Perhaps none of us have lived through a battle such as this will be. But we must win, and you must not shame yourself. The Ilanarai are watching. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, my liege.”

Branntur regarded me for a long moment and then said, “I do not mean that you should fail in caution.”

“I will do as you command,” I said, wondering if that had been a moment’s fatherly concern, or a particularly multifaceted criticism. I was never to know.

He told to me a plan involving swift horsemen, archers, lures to draw in the enemy. There is never really much grand strategy to a battle fought in the Western style. There is no defense and not much of a plan, for all is based upon speed and ferocity. He thought the Liar would not attack till dawn.

One hour later, in the pit of the night, when I had just seen my warband settled with sentries stationed, a horde of twelve thousand blankfaces struck us like a tidal wave.

I remember striking with my sword until my arm was so sore I could hardly lift it, and by then it was afternoon, but dust and smoke had turned the air red. I remember shooting into expressionless, silent masses, and seeing one fall, and a thousand race onward, brandishing their rusty blades. Blankfaces make no warcry, show no emotion, think nothing. All that they can do is to destroy. But they feel no pain or fear. They will struggle on to kill when their guts are out dragging in the dirt and trampled. Each one is easy to kill. But there is another and another. . .

I remember the stink of the blood of People and horses and blankfaces and the harsh blue acid blood of the brown, spined draugar that Karra of Pelambar killed with her war-axe, that withered the grass where it fell. I remember shouting orders that nobody could hear. At some time in the afternoon a message came that the far flank, held by Ringuil ko-hIlanaro, had been broken by wighten. But not my wighten, no, for they had stayed loyal, and were mostly dead already.

And when we had fought through the night and through most of the next day, and the sun was a great red wound glaring through the dirty sky, someone rode up to me. One of the People, anonymous behind a dented helmet, so I ignored him. I was on my fourth mount and it was staggering. I had shot all my arrows. Ignoring the pain in my arm, I slashed the throat out of one more blankface: the thirty-seventh, no, the thirty-fifth, I had lost count . . .

He took my reins and dragged my horse to a halt. Dust-choked, I croaked out a protest.

He took off his helmet, despite flying arrows and the little grey poisoned darts one of the draugar was shooting from its eyes. It was Shanhai. He had to shout to be heard.

“Your father is dead! You must take command!”

“No,” I said, uselessly, shaking my head.

He grabbed my arm and shook me, hard. “Riganh. You must command us now.”

Then I understood that it was true, and the world dropped out from under me. I could not be riganh, nor command this army. My father could not be dead. I had never expected to inherit. We live forever.

But he had died.

“Sound the retreat,” I told him. “Bring all away in good order, northward. I will have no-one left behind.”

He hesitated.

“Do it, if you call me your riganh! This battle is lost. We will not waste another life!”

The bone-flutes shrilled, and the surviving riders wheeled their horses, and our broken army fled the field.

Later, I found that though I was bruised black and cut and sore, I had taken no hurts that would not heal overnight. I learned that Tiarn Karra had not stayed to make encampment with us, but had headed north for Pelambar immediately. So had Raivo, the heir of Roanmare of High Plains, who lay dead somewhere in the trampled, bloody grass. The Ilanarai stayed: one brother who was loyal, two who considered my House usurpers. Now that was mine to deal with. It was all mine to deal with.

Scouts sent back to search for survivors brought back the body of Branntur, riganh of the West. In a sense they brought it back. It was rags and gobbets of flesh, bundled in a cloak. They must have identified him by scent. One blue eye glared; the hair and the ears had been torn from his skull.

The dead were burned on a common pyre. I watched till the last of the embers burned out, in despite of Shanhai’s urging me to ride, for the Liar’s forces would soon return. Soon, with the survivors from my warband and from Oak Citadel alike, I would ride for Gwarohon. There I would be formally named riganh, and the nobility of the West would swear me fealty; if none of them rebelled. I was the youngest ever to ascend to the riganhei. And we had lost the battle.

I watched the last bright ember swirl up to meet the sun.

Copyright Kyri Freeman, 2016 - All print and digital rights reserved

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Ilanaro and Branntur

Ilanaro and Branntur

The draugr hits Ilanaro like an avalanche and he has time to think quite calmly well, that’s it for me, but he still struggles because the riganh of all the People, ruler of the West, must go out fighting. The tip of a talon pierces the armor at his shoulder, rips back, tears the bright Kingschain from his neck. The sunrise-colored jewels drop to the dust. He has time to shout, “Take it!” at his son, Varyo. And then the talons grip him, stabbing through his ringmail, the draugr’s leathery wings beat down once hard, and it lifts off, bearing him. He refuses to scream, as the battlefield recedes and his mesnie shouts, and now he hangs limp, thinking if he writhes the thing will drop him, choking on its hot reptilian stench and the smell of his own blood as it flies with him over the iron walls of Landscathe and down into the Pit.

It folds its wings and drops. Down, down, onto a metal platform, and there it shakes him free from its claws, and flies away.

Ri-Ilanaro wavers to his feet. The blood oozing through his ringmail slows and clots; he is not badly hurt. But he dropped his sword when the draugr struck him. He pulls a long dagger from his boot. Now that he can breathe again he thinks, plans. Varyo can take the riganhei. He is ready. But I never had a chance to tell Tiano there is no chance I’ll allow him and Kovannin to wed. Foster-brothers, and Kovannin married already. And I should have spent more time with Ringuil. And Branntur . . .

It hurts to think of his best friend and staunchest supporter learning of his death.
But he is not dead yet. And he is still riganh from a long line of riganhur. He makes himself stand straight. He is near the bottom of a huge pit; several Western ringforts would fit inside. Above him, walls of stone and metal rise high. Things move there. They seem made of both flesh and metal, bleeding and steaming. They are not the pale little mindless killers called blankfaces. Instead they have the eyes of people, set in stretched bellows where the jaws should be. They flail pincers of steel on the end of muscular arms. They are constantly at work, and steam and the stench of hot metal thicken the air, and the noise of hammering and squealing metal are deafening, but he cannot tell what the illspawn are doing. High above, a small brownish circle of sky beckons. Can he climb out?

Or maybe the Invader has brought him here to parley. Maybe She means to surrender. Not very likely, he has to admit, after nearly a thousand years of warfare. But after all, he is Ilanaro.

Then the sky vanishes and She is there. She is beyond what his mind can grasp: dark brightness, world-filling enormity that yet crouches spiderlike on the wall of the Pit, sweet-acid reek, a voice that speaks in his mind and blots out everything else.
He is shaking. The dagger falls from his hand. He can hardly speak for awe and terror. But he stays on his feet, and chokes out, “I am Ilanaro, riganh of all the People . . .”

She takes his mind. He sees:

The flaming fortress – ship – plummeting through poisoned air, knifing deep underground, burning and melting. Exile. A place of wrongness. He sees the world through Her eyes. Ugly and wrong. But it has creatures, and he feels Her laughter at discovering them.

He tries to resist Her. He fights with all his pride, built during two hundred years of rulership and countless winning fights; but what he learns destroys his pride. He struggles, still, with all the defiant will he has left. She breaks his will as easily as he would snap a twig, and makes him see:

It is all great sport. Uplift them, remake them. She makes the People for toys and slaves. She shapes them into draugar, into the suffering mechanisms of the Pit. She meddles with their history for amusement’s sake, teaching shapestrength to the Old Rulers, destroying here, torturing there, sparing elsewhere on a whim. Some escape Her immediate grasp and believe that they are free. What of it? They can be destroyed quickly or slowly, at convenience, or for fun.

All the battles of almost a thousand years mean nothing. The victories are hollow. The Invader could have destroyed the last of the People at any time, with but little effort and nothing that She valued lost. They exist only to work and to offer a diversion from dull exile.

He sees, while outside the Pit, a night passes and a day. Then She releases him. He falls to his knees.

We are all Hers.

His mind cracks under the weight of knowledge.

Riganh of all the People. What is that? A slave, a toy.

He lacks the will to fight as madness takes him.

Later, deep in the iron-stinking night of the Pit, Her mind returns to his, and offered him a world of light. That was Her home. Soon, her exile will end, and She will take him with Her, into light, if he obeys. And broken, he agrees; knowing it is probably a lie. But he is a slave, and nothing matters any more.

She teaches him shapestrength in one agonizing moment. He lies on cold stone in the sound of clanging hammers, and struggles to control a body that suddenly melts and seeps away, whose tall, lean swordsman’s form suddenly changes to rack and wither, that sprouts oozing tumors and new limbs that twitch and flail.

Somehow, when the smoky light of the second day filters into the depths, he is still alive. He forces his twisted body with pain into its own form. He would look like himself, if any of his own could see him now. As long as they did not look into his eyes.

*

When blankfaces drag his eldest son, Varyo, into the room where he is kept, he does not know what he is doing. He knows only the commands that rule him. He hears Varyo’s vain attempt to talk his father out of madness. He hears the pleas and then the agonizing screams as he works Her will on Varyo’s face, mutilating him, stabbing hot metal into his eye, replacing it with a hideous Change. He smells the scorch and the blood. He sees the taint of madness come into Varyo’s remaining one grey eye. But only in a far corner of his mind does he understand.

Later, as some shadow of sanity seeps back, he will realize what he did. He will scream, and rage, and try to slay himself; but She will not allow it. He will know what he did to Varyo, and that it was done for Her pleasure, and so that the Ilanarai heir might go back into the world unfit to be riganh, and bearing the seeds of madness. In time those seeds will ripen.

Ilanaro dreams of the Bright World. It is all he has left.

*
Branntur paces the camp, blinded by grief, unable to rest. He has not washed the battlefield filth from his armor and when he tries to wipe tears and snot away his gauntlet leaves a streak of blood and dust across his face. It does not matter.

Ilanaro taken. And Varyo. The camp is silent, shocked. Branntur and the other nobles called the retreat. The Western army was away in reasonable order and the Liar’s forces have not followed them. He thinks bitterly, Why should they? The heart has been ripped out of us. And now what?

Tiano, Ilanaro’s second son, would be riganh if his father and brother were dead. And Ilanaro must be dead. Branntur had not seen it, but weeping witnesses had told him of their ruler hanging limp in the draugr’s claws. He sobs, and stifles it before anyone can hear. Now, of all times, the People’s leaders must act properly. They must set an example. Or what will happen but panic and rout and soulsickness?

Tiano. He must speak with the boy. That is why he has come to the Ilanarai sector of the camp, to this pavilion, marked with the bellflower sigil of the second son.

Tiano: recklessly brave, foul-mouthed, outspoken, promising to be a great swordsman one day. But where is he now? Karra of Pelambar, Willow-Wand of Haven, and all the other tiarnur, the lords and ladies of lands owing fealty to Ilanaro, patrol the camp, keeping their mesnies alert: wakeful, watchful, doing their duties, even with their ruler . . . gone. Someone must advise Tiano to do the same. He is the heir and he must take up the reins.

But as Branntur approaches, the guards at the pavilion entrance step forward. “I am sorry, tiarn Branntur,” one says, “but we . . . The young heir is . . .”

They know Branntur, as everyone does. The riganh’s shield-hand; the rock foundation of the realm. Ilanaro’s closest friend and strongest supporter. They do not know what else lies between him and the riganh. He hopes that no-one knows.

“I understand he grieves,” Branntur says. As if we are not all grieving! “It is important that I speak with him.”

She looks utterly uncomfortable. “He is . . . not alone.”

Well, that is not so bad. Though improper, with the boy not yet wed. But who am I to dare speak of propriety? When only last night . . . He pushes the memory of Ilanaro’s touch away. If he thinks of that now he will weep before them all. Nor does he want to think of Maeren, his consort, even now guarding Oak Citadel, and hating him.

“I understand,” he tells the hapless guard. “Tell him when you can that I must speak with him as soon as may be.”

Leaving, he finds curiosity tugs at him. He slips silently around the back of the pavilion to learn what ears and nose can tell him.

And stops in shock. He knows that soft voice, even intertwined with Tiano’s in cries of answered desire. He knows the scent, even when it is hot with musk.

He walks some distance away quickly and then he, who never curses, bursts out with “Oh stinking dung of ten thousand vargs!”

Tiano’s lover is Kovannin. Branntur’s son. Unacknowledged, born to a mother of the woodfolk savages. Ilanaro and Branntur agreed the boy would do best fostered in Ilanaro’s mesnie, apprenticed to the great armorer Vainarien. That has worked well; Branntur has seen some of what Kovannin has fashioned, and it is enough to make him proud.

They decided never to tell Kovannin who his father was. He has been brought up as a fosterling with Ilanaro’s own sons. And Ilanaro has given Kovannin to a noble-born cousin of his House as consort.

So many honors, and now the boy risks everything for an adulterous liaison with his own foster-brother.

Well, not a boy anymore. Branntur supposes he will have to acknowledge that.

And if Tiano does inherit? What then? He will have to choose a female consort, for the days of the Old Rulers, when shapestrength meant either male or female could bear an heir, are long gone. Maybe a three-marriage . . . but they will look, people like Karra of Pelambar and Roanmare of High Plains, they will question, they will not like a fosterling of no bloodline to be a royal consort. They will hound Kovannin. They may find out his parentage. Branntur thinks that he would weather the scandal: he is lord of Oak Citadel and Gwarohon and a famous warrior. But Kovannin, young and slight and not much of a fighter – how can Branntur protect him?

Distracted by these poisonous thoughts, he rounds a corner and finds himself facing Karra, and several of her mesnie, including her line-commander, Aileniko. Only a little older than Ilanaro’s sons as the People count years, but that one lets himself be called Champion of Pelambar. Branntur finds that boastful. And he does not like the way Aileniko flicks his long pewter-colored braid back over his shoulder and stares as if to say I could take you.

You may try it. Arrogant whelp. Branntur says, “Tiarn Karra, is all quiet?”

“For now.” She is resplendent in the finest ringmail he has ever seen, supple as silk. That is Pelambar: wealth and power. “But we must retreat, Branntur. We have stopped too close to the Pit, and soon they will be upon us again. Once the mesnies have rested, we must withdraw to a safer distance. Then we can swear to the new riganh.”

“We will not withdraw yet,” Branntur says. “We have not taken great loss in numbers. And Ilanaro is riganh.”

She stares. “Ilanaro is dead.”

“We do not yet know that.”

“If he is not,” Karra says, “and he returns, he will come back to us tainted. You know this. Will you have the strength to kill him yourself?”

“He is not dead,” Branntur shouts, hearing his voice crack, “and he will come back, untainted! You will not speak of such things!”

Their eyes widen, and he thinks, well, now they must suspect I was – no, I am – more than merely Ilanaro’s most trusted vassal.

Karra says, “We shall see. But as for Pelambar, we will not stay here past noon tomorrow. And you may be the riganh’s favorite, but you do not speak with his voice. You cannot command me otherwise.”

“My mesnie will stay,” Branntur says. “If we must stand alone here at Landscathe’s gate, we will, until we know whether our riganh be dead or no.”

“Your choice,” Karra says, and she and her people walk on.

And now I have done ill to let her see my heart.

He continues to walk. His own words come back to him. Ilanaro does not feel dead. Surely Branntur would know. But how should he know; that is foolishness, superstition, believing in awen and signs and portents; but it does not seem to him that his riganh is dead.

But if not dead . . .

Those who escape the Pit are killed or driven into exile. They are not accepted back. The People have learned by hard experience that the Liar’s power lingers.

But surely Ilanaro would prove exception. He is riganh. He is strong, he is warm-hearted, he will laugh in the enemy’s face. . .

Branntur walks on, circling the mesnies, hearing the screams of the wounded, until he sees dawn coming up bleak and smoky through a haze of tears.

Just after sunrise, he is back with his own mesnie. Taren, his line-commander, hands him a cup of blood-broth, and he drinks it without tasting. He has still not washed or rested. He stares out toward the Pit, its metal walls, the plumes of smoke rising.

Smoke, and dust. A little dust. Someone is creeping over the battlefield, slowly, painfully. “Stay here,” he orders Taren, “bid everyone stay here,” and he is on the nearest horse and galloping to the movement that he sees.

When he sees that it is Varyo, he thinks his heart will shatter in his chest. But it would be unfair to show it. He dismounts, bends over Ilanaro’s eldest son, smelling blood and worse things, calling his name.

When the dark-red hair falls back from Varyo’s face, what Branntur sees makes him turn aside and retch. At first he does not understand what Varyo is saying, and then he realizes the choking words are, “Hide it … hide it.”

He tears the silk of his tabard and carefully ties it over the ruined side of Varyo’s face, the red raw marks of torture and the terrible thing where Varyo’s eye used to be. He will see that in nightmares for the rest of his life. He does not want to touch it. But he is gentle. “Come now,” he says, “let me help you up, we must get you to the healers . . .”

Varyo grips his wrist, bruising. “No healers.”

“As you wish, but let us be away before the illspawn are upon us.”

“They will not.” Varyo laughs, and blood bubbles over his lips. “They have what they want.”

Branntur waits, dreading.

“He is dead,” Varyo says. “He is dead, and I am worse than dead.”

Branntur cannot stop himself asking, “You are sure . . .”

“I saw. I know.”

Then despair stops his blood and takes the marrow out of his bones, but he lifts Varyo onto the horse and takes him back to the camp, because what else is there to do?

He goes back to his own pavilion, sends all his mesnie out, and lets the sorrow take him.

*

Later, Varyo’s herald summons the tiarnur to his pavilion. All assemble; Branntur covertly watches Kovannin, thin and dark, tearstained, but all too obviously close by Tiano’s side. He waits to see if anyone will speak of taint or exile. If they do, he will shout them down. The law says that the riganh may not bear unhealing wounds, but Varyo’s wounds may heal; and even if they will not, Tiano should not rule, because he is young and reckless, and because . . . Then there is Ilanaro’s youngest son, Ringuil. Branntur does not know him well. But the youngest cannot inherit.

Varyo walks out among them all, leaning on a curve-bladed spear. The shreds of silk have been replaced by a leather mask. No wounds are visible, except in the expression in his one remaining eye.

“My father is dead,” he says.

No sound but Ringuil sobbing.

“I cannot rule. These wounds will not heal. I will remain as head of the House of Ilanaro. But . . .”

Branntur is watching Tiano’s face when Varyo speaks his next words, and sees the hurt and shock there.

“But it was Ilanaro’s last wish that neither Tiano nor Ringuil should inherit, but rather Tiarn Branntur, Lord of Oak Citadel and Gwarohon, should be riganh.”

There are cries of astonishment, and Branntur’s is among them. There are no riganhur in his line. Nor did Ilanaro ever say such a mad thing to him.

Tiano, to his credit, does not embarrass himself with protests, but stands straight and still, his jaw set and his blue eyes blazing.

Everyone is now, of course, staring at Branntur, and he must think fast. Tiano the reckless, the immature. Kovannin, whose ancestry must never be found out. And he can do it; he can reign. Not with Ilanaro’s brilliance. But he can take the burden; he can do this duty, in his beloved’s memory. “It is an unlooked-for honor,” he says. “I will accept.”
And then he waits for the challenges to come, but there is silence, until first one, and then they all, kneel to swear their fealty.

Afterwards, sometimes in the quiet of a hot noon, or the icy silence of a winter night-watch, the feeling comes to him again that Ilanaro is not dead. But then the brutal memory of Varyo’s words returns, and the feeling is only foolish vain desire, and Branntur shuts it away.

Copyright Kyri Freeman, 2016 - All print and digital rights reserved

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Two Sierras hikes

I visited Mono Lake during a stormy, windy few days that limited my hiking, but I did get out twice, one kind of meh, one awesome:

Oneida/Crystal Lakes. It's a pretty hike up the side of Lundy Canyon, but despite being short, is fairly strenuous, uphill all the way on a rocky old mining road. When you get to Crystal Lake you're greeted by all kinds of signs saying not to linger on the poisonous mine tailings or eat fish from the lake or even go into one particular area! Who knew this existed in the Sierras! The route continues to presumably less contaminated Oneida Lake, which is upstream, but it's a bit of a bushwhack at that point and the wind was annoying, so I didn't do it. I wouldn't particularly recommend this walk. There's another trailhead farther up the canyon where you can see the gorgeous surroundings without risking arsenic and lead (I hope).

There are Sierra bighorns in this area and I wonder if the pollution presents a threat to them? There were definitely plenty of typical mountain birds in the area and they seemed normal.

Also, the water goes into Lundy Creek, which eventually goes into Mono Lake ... I think this is the one creek NOT diverted by LA DWP? Is that why? Hmmm.

Anyway, I also hiked in the Mono Craters, otherwise known as coulees. These are the giant rhyolite/obsidian flows just to the south of the lake. There are old roads which have turned into trails. It's best to park along 120 east in any of a large number of pullouts and then walk the 4WD roads up into the craters. Very pretty and different with great views! Not for hot days (and not really ideal for 70 MPH winds either; it's gritty), and watch out for rockfall. If you get up high enough there is gorgeous, perfect black obsidian glittering in the sand. There was also a singing Loggerhead Shrike and a Mountain Bluebird desperately holding onto a sagebrush until it lost its grip and flew away on the howling wind with a despairing 'peep'. There are several different road/trails and I didn't finish exploring the whole area. I want to go back on a cold day with no wind...

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Ringuil

I've been rewriting the Sun Saga and Stealing the Sun in particular. As I do so, some questions come up, leading to mini-stories, which I'll post here for anyone who is interested. The question that inspired this one was basically, "Why the heck is Ringuil so crazy, and so hard on Altir? And why doesn't he freak out when Altir appears to be shapestrong?"

Ringuil

On the fifth day a battlefield bird flew in on its broad black-and-white wings and roosted on the ring-fort’s wall, eagerly blinking its little eyes in its bald pinkish-orange head.

Ringuil would have ordered it shot. But he could not leave her.

The arrow-slit windows could not be shut. Only heavy oiled vellum could be fastened over them on the inside to keep the weather out, and he had done that; now they kept out flies, but did not keep in the smell.

Eight days ago she had smelled of young ferns and clean weather.

When he knelt on the floor by the resting-cushions to try again, her skin was cold, cold, greenish-pale where it had been tan, and it sank under his hands, and the smell rose up.

Ringuil was the third son. Never to inherit as leader of the House of Ilanaro. But he was the only one to have a child of his own; a boy who would barely remember his mother. Unless.

Arethl had been laughing and fierce. She had cared nothing for Ringuil’s poor patrimony, for the scanty forest pasture that could support only a few horses, or the home-brewed honeymead in place of Haven wine. She did not care that the Ilanarai were no longer riganhur, that the monarchy had been lost to usurpers. Ringuil could not go a day without raging at the usurpation. But Arethl would laugh, and challenge him to shoot at a mark or walk a narrow branch, and the rage would drain away like poison from an abscess, and later they would love.

The people who had been with her said the draugr had driven a bony spine through her body. Not her head, with its short-cropped white-blonde hair and delicate pointed ears clinking with bronze rings, her storm-grey eyes now closed; not her heart. She could not be dead. Nobody died from such a small wound. The healer said it was woundshock, it was sudden massive bloodloss; the healer was a varg-beshitted fool.

She could not die from such a little wound. But she had not moved nor spoken, and her heart did not beat. First her limbs had gone stiff as wood, and now . . .

But Ringuil would save her.

Once the People had been shapestrong, and that could heal her, surely. But they – Ringuil’s eldest brother, Varyo, head of his House, and his second eldest brother Tiano – feared shapestrength. All the People did. But that was stupid. Varyo, yes, had been tortured, blinded in one eye and scarred with unhealing wounds by the Invader’s creatures. Who used shapestrength. Yes. The power to shapechange – to harm, to torment, to deceive – was one of the enemy’s most powerful weapons. Ringuil thought that it had broken Varyo’s courage as well as his face, though he had never dared to tell his brother so aloud. He had dared to argue, once, that the People should use shapestrength, not fear it. Hundreds of years ago, the Old Rulers had used shapestrength, had Changed themselves and others, and in those days the Invader and Her hordes had been confined to their pit at Landscathe. But Varyo had silenced him.

Her skin gelid under his hands, he reached into himself, clenching his teeth, struggling to find the skill. He did not know what it would feel like. He could only focus all his will. Projecting desperation into Arethl. Forcing her body to heal.

Two more days went by. He had not eaten nor drunk for a week, since the day Arethl was brought home tied over her horse’s back. Vultures joined the battlefield bird. They squabbled on the wall.

Ringuil struggled on. His bones cracked with his effort; his throat bled. Despair crept into him. The smell was choking, a hot red thing that got into his lungs and sickened him. But he could not give up. He racked himself for shapestrength until he cried out with the pain and shadows beat at the edges of his vision.

Mid-morning on the seventh day, he put his hands on Arethl and she burst. Stinking black-red liquid and soft things poured from her swollen body over the resting-cushions and his boots. His hands sank in it. In her.

Enough. It was the first clear thought he had had in days. He reached for his dagger. It seemed, after all, that a little wound would be enough.

The locked door was flung open. Someone seized him, ripped the blade away. Tiano. Cries of horror. His brothers dragging him away. “Burn that,” somebody said. “Burn . . . gods, the cushions, the wall-hangings, everything in this room goes to the pyre.”

He screamed, struggled, bit Tiano’s wrist to the bone. It was no use. His brothers tied his hands behind him and pinioned him to a heavy armor-chest in a locked room. Varyo cut off his foul clothing, washed him. Ringuil snarled curses; Varyo did not answer. The healer came with a tisane, and flinched from what Ringuil said to her then; Tiano took the goblet, forced Ringuil’s mouth open, and made him choke down the bitter calming brew.

At last they left him alone. He pulled at his bonds, but there was no escaping. The herbs in the tisane began to blur the world. He stared at the stone ceiling. Alone.

After an unknown time, Varyo came back. “You are my brother. I know you grieve, but you must not give way so to madness. I would not lose you to soulsickness.” Always a little formal, a little stilted, Varyo, with the mask covering the ruined half of his face and his silk coat bearing the scarlet flame of their House.

“Fuck you and fuck soulsickness,” Ringuil snarled. But when Varyo left he thought of it: the plague of despair, the black rot that could not be cured. They had all seen it: a small lordship, no word heard all winter, riding to give aid if possible, finding nothing but tree-platforms weighed down with dripping corpses. It was not a contagion; the People did not suffer from such. The healers said it was despair made manifest.

So he tried to make himself soulsick, hour upon hour, as desperately as he had tried to make himself shapestrong. His brothers returned, forced him to drink blood-broth and tisane.

Soulsickness would not come. Day and night Varyo sat by him and spoke of sorrows he himself had known and supposedly overcome. Ringuil gave up cursing him, and sat silent, trying to die. Tiano did not bother with gentle words; it was he who strong-armed potions down Ringuil’s throat.

For many days and nights they kept him chained. The smell of funeral smoke faded. The black birds flew away.

One night, the door opened, and Ringuil braced himself. But it was Strongbow, his line-commander. She said, “You have a four-year-old son, who is crying for his mother, and I cannot comfort him. Shall I tell him that his father is dead too?”

Ringuil thought for a while. Death had rejected him. What was there now in life?

“Call my brothers,” he said eventually. When they came in, he said, “Let me out of these bonds. My madness has passed.”

They looked at him narrowly. Varyo said, “You will not try to harm yourself again?”

“I have a son. It is time I began to care for him.”

They set him free. He sat up, rubbing his wrists. Rot and stench and loss slunk to the back of his mind. He had a son. As mutilated Varyo would never have. As Tiano, married to a male consort whom Ringuil despised, likely would not. A son who would someday be head of the House of Ilanaro. Who inherited the regal line of hundreds of years of riganhur; who might yet take back the throne.

He limped to the door. “Altir,” he called.

Copyright Kyri Freeman, 2016 - All print and digital rights reserved

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Sierras trip, 2016

This trip was kind of a monument to bad planning, although we ended up having a good time.

We wanted to spend some time in the Tyndall Creek area, so we were originally going to go up Shepherd Pass, but we realized that it was going to be extremely hot in July. The way to do it would be to stay somewhere nearby (there's nothing but more heat at the trailhead) and get up really early, but we hadn't prepared by getting a motel room. So we decided to go in over Kearsarge Pass instead.

One thing I did not know, that is not on the National Forest website, is that if you want a walk-in permit for the NEXT day, they will not give that out until 11 AM. Same-day permits are given out right when the visitor centers open. I got us a fraudulent same-day permit and made up an itinerary based on the mileage we were able to do 8 years ago when we were near the end of our JMT trip.

So... we got a campsite in Onion Valley (not that easy to do at the season, but it was early in the day. Another note: the walk-in sites confuse people and are more likely to be open, although we got a drive-in). And the next day we headed up Kearsarge Pass.

Kearsarge Pass, the basis for Pelambar Pass in my books, is pretty easy, but not totally trivial on the first day with a very heavy, ill-fitting, borrowed pack (Solstice peed in my regular pack), and we went all the way to Bubbs Creek, which is about 12 miles. It was hot. I was definitely ready to be done.

I've become fonder of lower elevation areas as I've become a birder, and there were lots of birds down there (my year Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches were up on the pass, though, right by the trail), and also deer, both moms with fawns and bachelor herds. There were also lots of wildflowers throughout the trip. Less pleasant, there were lots of people. And really gross, there was lots of poo and toilet paper right up the hill from the creek, and even right by the creek, and even in a campsite we were in later south of Forester Pass. What the hell is wrong with people? Go farther away! Bury it! Pack it out! I packed out not only 99% of my TP but all my sanitary products (third year in a row this has been necessary. YAY... not), and everybody else can grow up and do that too. I wonder if they should put bins with bags, like the bins in busy dog-walking areas. Not really compatible with wilderness, but neither is the open-air latrine thing.

OK, so enough of that. We then hiked up to Center Basin, an area I had seen on the map and thought "hmm, what's up there?" If you look at the map and the trail you will find the way to this beautiful, mostly empty, high set of lakes under Center Peak and Mount Bradley. There was such amazing glacial polish here that I had to touch one rock just to make sure it wasn't actually wet. We camped by Golden Bear Lake and day hiked up a series of moraines to look at high tarns and the cross-country route to Junction Pass. The hot weather was giving way to threatening storm. In the night we heard an odd yipping, squealing yodel -- I tried to figure out what it had been, but really wasn't sure until the morning brought a whole chorus of coyotes. Someone had been singing the soprano part unaccompanied.

We continued over Forester Pass. This is a beautiful hike but not easy. I do OK with elevation, but at around 13200, it's fairly high, and it climbs a lot. At one point I sat down and declared that we had to fix my pack, which was crushing my shoulders like a medieval torture device. We re-rigged it, which made it bearable, and went on. On top the one sky pilot plant I remember had multiplied into a whole field of beautiful blue flowers. And down we went, into the increasingly ominous weather.

At this point, I had planned for us to go to the Tyndall Frog Ponds, and maybe I should have insisted, but it just seemed too far, and so we camped in a pretty campsite near the bridge between the two lakes visible to the left of the trail immediately below the pass. It was a beautiful spot. (There was poo, but anyway.) And the skies opened.

Post-skies opening, my SteriPen quit working. We had been planning on spending the next day day-hiking to Lake South America. But with the weather, and worrying that boiling all our water would use up all our fuel, we decided to head out.

Over Forester Pass two times in two days. I'm not sure how many times that has actually been done. It's easier from the south side, and we made it ahead of the dark clouds. The high country was full of marmots and adorable, confiding pikas.

My toe, which had an ingrown toenail and ended up needing surgery, oral antibiotics and a tetanus shot, was not particularly happy with this schedule.

On the way back down to Bubbs Creek, we were struck by a very cold storm that began with hail. There had been SO many people heading up the pass, including a train of three elegant llamas, but they have wool. The many young women in running shorts (seems like the new trail fashion) hopefully had something they could quickly change into. It's great to see people out hiking, a more diverse population than in the past with lots of younger people and lots of women hiking alone, but you need to be aware of the weather, and many people we met on that day seemed not to be. I got very cold very quickly from that storm and I wasn't wearing shorts nor high on the pass when it hit. We set up the tent and hunkered down, but soon the rain stopped, and we headed for a really nice campsite I had seen on the way up.

At first I couldn't find the site and was frustrated, but then we found it, a gorgeous site next to waterfalls. (There was poo. ARGH) We got to watch a pair of bucks grazing, which was interesting to see, because one alerted, put his head up and started staring at something. The other clearly had no idea what his friend was looking at, and instead of watching the same spot, he watched his friend! When the first buck relaxed and put his head down, so did the second one.

The next day we returned to Kearsage Lakes. The connector trail up from Bubbs Creek is in fairly bad shape and a definite slog. The trails within the Kearsage basin are also in an awful state. But the weather had cleared to classic, sparkling Sierras sunlight, and to our surprise, we were alone at the lakes! I spent most of the day sitting on a rock watching a doe graze with her fawn, who would periodically get the puppy crazies, pretend something scared him, and dash around in wild circles around his mom.

The next day we descended past a horde of incoming hikers (it was Saturday) and, after handling a dead battery, spent the night in Bishop.

It was a great trip. I'm especially glad to have checked out Center Basin. But I need to have a more realistic idea of what mileage we (by which I mean me and my dad) can do, I need to just bring extra SteriPen batteries despite the weight or else switch to a rechargeable one (but then you have to also carry a recharger and you have to trust that it will work since it seems not to also be able to use AAs), and I definitely need to buy a couple of LifeStraws for backup (my dad thinks that boiling water for 30 seconds! kills Giardia etc., of which I'm not at all convinced). And I need a new pack. Even the one Solstice peed in is painful on my shoulders, to say nothing of The Crusher, which I since found out was my sister's pack when she was a ranger in Denali in 1994. At one point we met a 20-something guy who praised it as "old-school". Yeah, old-school like the Iron Maiden was old-school.

And both hikers and wilderness managers need to do something about the poo. Not to harp on it, but I've been backpacking in the Sierras since I was 13 and I've never seen it like this. Put up bins in the heavily impacted areas, is my vote.



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Alaska

Denali

Green and mist, the mythic North of bagpipes and tartan, of runestones and sagas, for that matter of wildlings and walls of ice, only not. But it is, only a hemisphere away: the north of my ancestors, the icy peaks, the green, the fog. Sleepy wet bear, wet heather. Bright-eyed baby moose. Blackpoll song.

Nome

A cold shore, a disarray of buildings and debris. Weather unkind, until it clears and midnight is bathed in gold. More mountains, more wilderness that I want to be immersed in. Long-tailed Jaegers, musk oxen, gyrfalcons, Spectacled Eider, Harlequin Ducks.

Kenai

Another place I need to come back to. Sparkling seas and hidden mountains. The wind off glaciers. Sky and water full of birds. Puffins (much more competent, less bath-toy than I expected), auklets, murrelets, humpbacks. Sea stacks. There is so much more of this to see. St. Elias is waiting.

Barrow

Ultima Thule, ice land, fog land. Is this the anthropologists' fabled point of Dorset darkness? (Still waiting to reread Arctic Dreams from the county library). I can see plenty of darkness in the impoverished town, but when the sun shines all night the pools are indigo, the tundra gold, the black gravel beaches are made of onyx, garnet and citrine. Neither Red Phalaropes, nor Snowy Owls, nor in particular Steller's Eiders with the sun on their breasts, would live in any evil place. But what is it in winter?

Clients

I expected to be the remedial student on a Wings trip, with everyone else more advanced than me, a bunch of fanatical listers who might not be very nice. Not the case. I have my birding mentors to thank that although I wouldn't say I was at the top of the class, I mostly didn't make a complete fool of myself. I was surprised at the lack of broadmindedness shown by people who are quite a bit older than I am and presumably have a lot of money. Really, not realizing there were going to be vans to climb in and out of? And double really, complaining that the tomato sauce came from a jar in Nome? (Nearest tomato plant: Somewhere on the other side of Canada?) Odd. There's also a sort of client mentality, kind of we'll ride along and you produce the birds for us, and that's not a role I'm really accustomed to or interested in for one reason and another, so hopefully I wasn't obnoxiously ... I think the word I want is prepotente, which no one will know what that means. Uppity? Non-clientish. I did find friends.

Peeing

Luckily, I pee freely in all ecosystems, so I was fine with the tundra. Heard odd "peent" calls. Could not see a bird, decided it must be ventriloquizing ground squirrels. Later, someone (I suspect it of having been Evan but don't remember for sure), said to me, "Oh, Eastern Yellow Wagtails. Those were circling over your head yesterday when you were peeing."

The second time round, and also at a different pee stop on totally the other side of Nome, saw the yellow wagtails.

Had no trouble seeing the two floatplanes that buzzed me during a 'rest' stop on the shores of the Bering Sea...

Zugunruhe

Two days after coming home, I signed up to go back north next year, to Gambel and the Pribilofs.

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