The march came to a halt at a small ruin atop a low hill, a place of charred earth and broken stones that might have been a sheepherder’s shack in better times. Under a crumbling stone wall, which made a poor shield against the mountain winds, the vagrants started a small fire for warmth. Everyone was exhausted. Even Horace, who was used to long marches and harsh countries, found no small relief in sitting down and rubbing his calves and feet. The years were gaining on him at last.
Soon after the fire was lit, a half-buried cauldron was found on the other side of the wall. A few of the vagrants dug it out and rubbed it clean, and a man claiming to once have been a cook in Broken Hearth took it upon himself to make a proper meal for all. Each man was asked to contribute something toward the dinner, if he could. A small heap of shriveled onions and potatoes soon appeared at the cook’s feet, along with many sprigs of field herbs and pouches of cornmeal. A quarter hour later, with much aplomb, the cook pronounced the meal ready. It was a vegetable soup thickened with cornmeal that smelled better than it tasted, but everyone was eager for warm, cooked food, and many went for seconds.
Thus their bellies filled and warm, the men took to a rare show of spirit. Someone—the old man who had walked with Horace—produced a reed pipe, and another a ram’s horn, and together they began to play a tune. Sitting against the far end of the wall where he had laid his bedroll, and slowly drinking the lukewarm soup from a wooden bowl, Horace watched as men gathered in a semicircle around the fire and joined in song.
Old ballads they sang, old hill songs and valley songs, songs from a bygone era and a bygone world both untamed and raw, unknown to Alchemy and tramways and blackpowder, where loved ones killed one another for honour and stone-hearted killers died of love, where shepherds and goatherds settled their grievances with a skip of a stone while guileless men traded their children for fae-gold under oak trees, and where children, thus forsaken, gave up their hearts and grew up to be stalkers of the woods. It was a world full of stories, a world told and sung in stories, and they sang as though their voices, united and whole, might bring back the storied world and restore all that they had lost in this one. Austerland, Austerland, they sang, of our bones, these rolling hills. But what was lost, when their voices grew hoarse and weak, was still lost. Distant, fading, long and irrevocably gone.
The music quietened gradually, and then all at once. Silence, once suffered, was quick to smother out what small joy the vagrants might have found in their own voices. One by one they shuffled to their places under the wall, wrapped themselves against the chill, and fell ruefully to the bright sleep of the dispossessed.
He was traveling with a group of men he had met on the road a few days past, men in fraying coats and overworn boots, workers of fields and lumber camps and country roads, drifters and vagrants all. Together they made a lowly flock headed for the city of Ardour’s Rest, the sole refuge against the impending Night in all of Eastern Territories for ones such as they. There were about twenty of them, and most, if not all, judging by their accent and common talk, were Austerlings whose livelihoods had been destroyed during the Miners’ War.
By the last quarter-hour the camp was awake, and the men broke their fast on a meager feast of cornmeal and hot water, emptied their bladders and bowels on the frosted field, and set off northward along the road.
Talk was scarce. The day was colder than the one before it, and they knew they had only a few days to reach the city. Once Night rose, no city would willingly open its gates for a group of vagrants.
Horace walked alone at the tail end of the procession. He did not know the names of the men he traveled with, nor was he inclined to. He was not one of them, not truly, and they knew it as well. Just as he had placed their origin by their songlike speech, they heard the harshness of his consonants and knew him to be a native son of Havertham. He’d seen it dawn on their faces after the first few words had been spoken. Hatred, fear, sorrow, And, underneath it all, blame.
But still they let him along and shared with him what little they had to eat and drink. They saw that he too was a man of the road, and as he had learned time and again wandering the Eastern Territories, a strange sort of camaraderie lived among those to whom their own existence was too heavy a burden. And Horace for his part was glad for their company, for it rendered the dying of light a little less unbearable.
They walked until fifth hour and stopped to rest their legs for a quarter, then set off again and walked until the eighth. The road was uneven. The horseshoe-shaped valley widened gradually as they walked but the mountain winds reached them just as bitterly. Near the flat of the valley, the group came across a wreckage of an oxcart in a ditch and later saw many cairns on the roadside. Some of the men stopped briefly to pay their respects.
Soon afterward, Horace was joined by an old man he did not know, broad-shouldered and thick of waist, who wore a great white tangle of a beard flecked with dirt and grime. When their eyes met the old man said, “No man should walk alone, while in company of others.” Horace bowed his head in gratitude.
Another sun was falling to its death. Lowly it clung to the eastern skies, like a pale and bloody fist grasping at the jagged peaks of the Spine. Its light was blood and honey, beautiful to behold but empty of life’s warmth.
Beneath the dying light, the vast stretches of valleys and hills that formed the Eastern Territories reeled. Five days since the first frost, and already the earth had withdrawn itself and left all its rooted children to wither and be drained of colour. Now the land took on the appearance of something half-formed, not altogether real but still palpable, still and yet not altogether lifeless, like something the gods might have dreamt of before creation.
But this half-world, too, Horace knew, would soon vanish with the wayward sun. And the world would know darkness yet again.
Horace Shaw had been awake for some time, and knew it was half-hour past the first. He had a keen sense of time. Someone long ago had once remarked that he must have gears in his brain, and this was more or less true. For the greater part of his life he had been wound up, so to speak, firstly by a father who starved him if he was not up and dressed before the first cock-crow, and later, after he had run away and enlisted in the army, by a pathfinder-sergeant who taught him how to read the hour by the bodies in the sky, who kicked him awake at odd times and asked him to name the hour, and kicked him more if he had got it wrong even by a quarter-hour. His body remembered the lessons, his stomach and his bones and his muscles, even as he strove to forget those years.
Now, lying in his tattered bedroll and waiting for others to stir, he watched as the sun continued its steady spiral toward the Abyss. A few days, a week at the most, and it would be no more. Night was stirring. He could feel it in the coldness of the earth and in the sharpness of the air, and in the rigour of the very light that touched his skin. Hunger and silence, there in the suffering quietude of all that surrounded him, and all that was inside of him, a cold conviction growing all the while like a bone tree. The thought of it chilled his spine, sent beads of cold sweat down his armpits.
He sat up, bent his head, and uttered the words. From whence it came, it shall return… From whence it came… But they held no comfort for him, those ancient words, and the breath that carried them was a thin white smoke rising toward an empty sky. A meek and bloodless exaltation.
I am dying
Of all the pretty girls
all the pretty boys
all the pretty lips
and all the pretty hips
all the fit jeans
all the lit screens
all the lean meats
and all the thin eats
all the neat ads
all the chic fads
all the rad scenes
and all the mad memes
all the dim lights
all the grim sights
all the tight porn
and all the right corn
all that is wrong
all that is wrong
all that is sold & bought
for fuck’s sake
all that recklessness
all that heartlessness
all that disingenuous
speaking in tongues
I love them all
I love them all
all the pretty things
all the pretty things
We’re getting poorer
and fatter all of the time.
I think Heaven is a mouth that does not speak
and this city has no ears, no eyes.
Dear Mr. Weatherman, please;
Tell us what the sky holds
and for whom the rain falls—
we hear its music
and do not understand.