This leads straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/06/10/zara-a-name-among-the-stars-scifi-adventure-romance-episode-4/
The start of the series is at https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/
The roads have been damaged, so Zara sets out to walk to Stormhaven along the coast path and claim her job as Dancing Mistress. Easy…
After five minutes walking, I know I will never make it as far as Stormhaven.
My improvised rucksack is cutting into my shoulders. My boots are too loose despite being tied so tightly that they squeak. And I’m walking in a sort of limbo; there’s a heavy fog coming off the ocean that swirls around me and makes macabre ghosts of the stunted coastal trees along the path. Every step feels like climbing.
After twenty-five minutes, I allow that I might make it in a day or so. Except I haven’t brought any food apart from crackers and water. I have no idea how far to the next village along this path and whether they might sell me food. But yes, I will stagger into Stormhaven eventually, my boots caked in mud, my clothes wet, stained and wrinkled from sleeping in the wild, grass and twigs in my hair, my face badly sunburnt. I’ll be met at the door of the house by the new Dancing Mistress. She’ll be a beautiful, blonde-haired lady, cool and slim, dressed in the most elegant and fashionable style. She’ll actually call the family to laugh at the ridiculous apparition that has arrived at their door.
After about forty-five minutes, the sun’s up and the fog’s ebbing back into the ocean. The shoes have stopped squeaking and my feet have swollen to fit. A couple of passes of tape, right around me and my duffel bag have stopped it rolling so much, and I’ve kinda forgotten it.
I’ll buy or beg some food from villagers. I’ll pick berries and ask the villagers to tell me which I can eat. Pride is a luxury I can no longer afford, and while that’s something in the future, it doesn’t feel so bad.
The coastal path is an old cart track. It’s made from crushed white rock so it stands out, and it follows the contours of the land. It sways and dips, lifts and falls in front of me like the track of a bird’s flight.
I’ve slowed down from the pace of the first few minutes, and the rhythm of walking is now permeating through my body. My doubts receed with the fog and the beauty of the scenery starts soaking into me.
It’s a wild and spectacular coast.
Black rock plunges into an endless blue-grey ocean, and forms isolated towers and stubborn headlands, all crowned with deep-green grasses. Pale sea-birds ride the currents of the strong on-shore wind and scream at each other in faint, high voices.
Don’t fall in love with this place until you have that job, I warn myself.
It does no good.
The stunted trees that loomed out of the fog like grotesque ghosts are now shown to be works of art, fashioned by the dominant weather. Branches are gnarled and knotted into fantastic shapes, and roots look like muscular arms and fingers gripping and anchoring the trees into the scoured cliffs.
They’re almost like bonsai.
I wonder if Shohwa would like to see them, and make a mental note to take pictures and post them to my account on the Xian bulletin board for her to see. Would she be able to send a construct down here? Could the construct enjoy the sensation of running fingers along the rough bark and narrow, oily leaves?
When did I start thinking of her as a person? As Shohwa and not a ship called the Shohwa.
I’m not sure and I find I don’t care. I sigh, fill my lungs with salty air and feel lighter than I should in the 98% gravity of this planet.
Things could be much worse.
It wouldn’t be so bad, if I became a vagabond, walking up and down this coast, living off the land.
That would be better than dead, or in a prison cell, which is what the conspirators on Newyan want.
I’m still a loose end for them.
If I get this job, they could find out about it easily enough. Employment information is exchanged freely between planets. But they wouldn’t want to make an extradition order; that would give me a forum in court to present my side of what happened.
The alternative option is exactly the sort of thing that the Dancing Masters and Mistresses were set up to defend against—they could send an assassin. If I can’t defend myself against an assassin, it’s hardly a recommendation for my employment.
And if I don’t get this job, if I live like a vagabond, or drift from one temporary job to another, that would make it an order of magnitude more difficult to find me.
On the coastal path, with the sun on my face and the wind buffeting me as I walk, those worries seem remote, unreal, and just a tangle of incalculable possibilities.
It’ll go where it goes.
I’ll concentrate on one thing at a time.
Get to Stormhaven first.
I comb my hair with my fingers, futilely. The wind messes it as soon as I let go. The thought that I’ll look like a scarecrow if I pass someone on this road makes me smile. A couple of months ago, I cut my hair, short as a boy, as part of my disguise, and it’s barely started to grow out again. It wasn’t just to change the shape of my face. On Newyan, Founding Families and the wealthy tend to wear their hair long. Cutting it so short changed people’s initial impression of me, made them make assumptions which helped me pass as someone else.
I haven’t studied Amethys enough, but it seems it might be the same. Maybe I’ll be able to confirm that when I find a village.
As if conjured up by my thinking of it, I see a village in the distance as I trudge around a headland.
It looks tucked in, crouching down out of the wind. It sits in a valley between two promontories, partly shielded on either side, and it has a harbor with quays reaching out like arms. There are a score of large boats moored there, and plenty more small ones pulled up out of the water. Upslope of the village, I can see the brighter green of grazing fields surrounded by dark trees, all along the valley and the lower slopes of the hills above.
It looks so peaceful, from a distance.
Closer up, it’s very different.
The town itself is picture perfect. Narrow houses with freshly-scrubbed pastel faces cluster around tidy cobbled squares. Windows gleam and even the standing water pump has a recent coat of black paint. The fishing fleet is in harbor and every one of them has been cleaned or has crew swarming over them with buckets and brushes. Little boats pulled up on the dock are glistening with new varnish. There are smart wooden benches on the sides of the squares, but they’re all empty. Everyone’s in motion.
There’s a food stand set up in the main square where people are hurriedly taking snacks before rushing off to some other task. It’s looked after by an old woman in a wheelchair.
She can see the expression on my face.
“Feast Day,” she says solemnly. “Gets a little hectic.”
That is an understatement. From their laconic way of speaking, this frantic activity was the last thing I expected from the people of the Welarvor coast.
“Is it possible to buy something to eat?” I ask. “Something not expensive.”
I have no idea what food costs out here. Just because I could buy something for 5 dynare in the city doesn’t mean that’s what it costs in a little village on the coast.
“No,” she says. “You won’t find a soul to take your money here today.”
Seeing my face fall, she takes pity on me and laughs.
“Feast Day, lass! No money must change hands. Go on. Help yourself.”
“I can’t. Surely I can pay something? A donation.”
“Not to me. Nor anyone here. Not on Feast Day. Bad luck that is. Might bring the piskatellers to knock on our doors at midnight.”
I have no idea what a piskateller is, and despite what I thought out on the road, I’m having to struggle with my pride. Accepting the food feels like begging.
But she takes no prisoners, this old woman.
“Come on with you. These here, these are raw, night-caught. You have to eat them in the next couple of hours or they spoil. Take them with pickles and the pepper, like so.”
She demonstrates. The small fishes have been neatly beheaded, gutted and boned, but the tail left attached. She picks one up, rolls it in something that looks like chopped onions and peppers and chews it in three bites, leaving just the tail.
I follow her example, and my eyes stream tears. It’s tasty all right, just a bit hotter than I expected. Vinegar and chili and onion and raw fish. Hmmm.
She packs some in paper with the piquant sauce in a little carton, and refuses any money. She also advises me that I can eat any berries that are red, brown or black. That I must avoid berries that are yellow and green. And every village has a standing pump which I can drink from. They’re about an hour’s walk apart, the villages, she says, so I don’t need to carry so much water.
I’d stay and ask more, but a man looking like a cartoon of a mayor from ancient history rushes up and frets about some preparations that are not done. The old woman appears to be a former mayor and proceeds to laugh off all the problems.
I interrupt briefly to thank them, and then leave, passing a town hall which gives off aromas that tell me this is going to be where the feast day earns its name.
It’s far too late to worry about not falling in love with this coast.
My love story continues throughout the morning, walking over more hills and headlands, through more villages, past the odd farmstead, and by the ruins of some mining industry.
The people are busy and friendly in a casual way. I get the feeling everyone notices me but no one is aggressively curious. No one laughs at my jury-rigged backpack. A few ask where I’m going, and on being told Stormhaven, they nod and smile as if to say, well if you can’t live right here, then Stormhaven’s not a bad second choice.
And apart from the first village, everyone’s relaxed.
Away from the villages, alone on the swooping white path, there’s only the wind to talk to me. It whistles and moans around oddly shaped rock formations.
I daydream that I’ve stepped back in time; way, way back. There’s none of the bloated complexity of life and politics and space travel and work and assassins. It’s a time before we ventured off our planet, when life was so simple and easy and people got along. And I don’t even have the whole world to think about. There’s just this coast, the road beneath my feet, the little villages, the sun, the ocean, and the sounds that the wind makes. Bliss.
And then the wind brings me a sound that is very different.
The clatter of hooves and jingle of harness: riders mounted on horses are coming down the path toward me. There’s something predatory about that sound.
I freeze and look up.
Just in time to see them pour over the crest of the next hill; a column of mounted troops, with gleaming full-face helmets, tall lances and flying banners.
I have stepped back in time, and I’m right in their path.
I’m off the road and crouching between trees before they’ve seen me.
I might have gotten away with it, too, but I hadn’t counted on the lead stallion. He knew I was there. Obviously I was unexpected, and maybe I smelled like a horse eating kind of person, so he shied away, with his eyes rolling and his hooves kicking.
In a heartbeat, the column has turned in its own length and I’m faced with a score of them; dusty, curious horse faces, pre-space helmets, with plumes, for stars’ sake, old military style uniforms, and even a lance or three waving in my direction.
I stand straight, but otherwise keep very still. Hands by my sides.
They’re long, those lances, and they look exceedingly sharp. They draw the eye. And dry the mouth.
Mr Lead Stallion pushes his helmet back so it rests on his forehead, emphasising the deep frown marks there.
The face is bluff, bold and arrogant; the eyes sharp as the points of those lances.
The voice is a surprise. Deep. Not as snide as I expected. I don’t know the voice, but I recognize the type without any effort. He sounds like my grandfather.
“Where away, lad?”
I bite my tongue. If I cut my hair and dress in a man’s cast-off work clothes, I guess I should expect people to make mistakes. And my instinct for self-preservation kicks in and grabs the first words I want to fling back at him, including blind and stupid.
I haven’t stepped back in time. I don’t know who these people are; maybe some re-enactment guild with a obsession for authenticity that has them drilling with horses every day, but Mr Lead Stallion is not a local fisherman or farmer. I’m looking to work in this part of the world, and I have no Name or eminence to defend me if I’m rude to a person of significance here.
I’m very pleased to note the lance points begin drifting back up and away. Politeness appears to have worked.
He doesn’t acknowledge his mistake, and instead, Mr Lead Stallion’s eyes rake me up and down in an insolent sort of way that I would have objected to just three months ago on Newyan.
I will not react. I need to get used to it.
I am not a Name. I have no pride. I’m one step from a beggar.
“Stormhaven,” he says. His mouth turns down. “Then we’re both late.”
As if he might consider something else if he wasn’t in a hurry. Standing in the hot sun, my blood goes cold.
A safe, law-abiding place. Mostly.
That’s what the woman in the refreshment shop in Bandry had said as we shared the teapot.
I guess that comment could be interpreted different ways. A law for people snug in their villages, maybe, and a different one for travellers out on the paths. A lesser law for those that wander and ‘bring things on themselves’.
I don’t know, and I’m not going to find out this time: the archaic helmet slides back down and the lead stallion wheels in place, kicks off down the road at a leisurely canter.
The remainder of the troop follow smoothly, all but one.
She, I know it’s she, despite the uniform, has to tug her horse’s bridle to prevent it from joining the others. She uses just a finger’s worth of pressure.
“You know how to use that staff?” Her voice sounds peculiar from inside her helmet.
I cut a stout stick earlier, as a hiking cane rather than a staff, but it would serve the purpose. I spin it casually. Yes, I do.
“Some,” I say. “I thought the predators stayed inland.”
“They do,” she replies. “One of the reasons they do, stranger, is that some of the old farm stock mutated when they brought them here. Hides out here, near the coast path.”
“I’m going to be chased off a cliff by a berserker ram?”
“Perhaps.” I can hear her smile. “But the really nasty ones are the boars. That’s what we thought you were, hiding in the trees. That, or a morlader.”
Her horse is fretting as the others disappear ahead.
“We’ll see you in Stormhaven,” she says, “if the boars don’t get you.”
She touches heels to her horse’s side and it gallops down the road, eager to rejoin the rest.
Morladers. Piskatellers. Mutated pigs. Mounted troops with lances. There’s a lot on this coast that doesn’t seem to feature on the InfoHub.
They’re not a re-enactment company. That level of horsemanship isn’t really something you achieve without living in the saddle. They’re the local military or police force. But the helmets? The plumes? The banners? Those damned lances?
The expansion of the human race across the Inner Worlds and the Margin has created pockets of strangeness, but those tend to be whole worlds. Where I came down the Skyhook in Kensa seemed normal. Even Bandry, way back behind me where I started this morning, was normal, if a little rural.
I could understand the economies of a rural police force that was mounted, but surely nowhere substituted lances for firearms.
It’s a mystery I may clear up in Stormhaven, and Mr Lead Stallion clearly thinks I’m behind my schedule to get there, so I start walking again and try to pick up the pace.
The afternoon wears down, the main difference being that the sun tends to be on the right side of my face, and the wind veers. The sounds it carries change. At one point I’m sure I hear hunting horns. Makes me shiver. It’s imagination, or something about the bizarre shapes of the rock formations.
Late afternoon, I use a water break to stop and examine one such formation.
It’s black rock, the same mineral as the cliffs. I can’t see how erosion would shape it the way it is—a large, tapering arrowhead shape rising at one end of a long, rounded base. There are too many like this for it to be coincidence. Also, they all have a hole bored through the middle of the arrowhead. That’s one of the causes of the wind sounds. It’s as if the stones were made to sing with the wind.
I need more time to research, but the sun touches the ocean and the western clouds begin to boil up in yellow and red. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t look promising for this evening.
And the storm hits about an hour later, just as the daylight dies. The wind begins to howl and cold rain comes in horizontally like ice spears.
I’m torn between seeking some kind of cover and toughing it out. I argue with myself that I can’t be that far from Stormhaven. I’m not that far from the cliff edge either, but the pale road stands out, even in the darkness, and so I put my head down and march. As long as the boars don’t like the rain, I’m reasonably safe.
But all the things that kept me going during the day are lost to me. Without distraction, my feet are blistering, my shoulders are numb, my legs wobble. Exhaustion hits hard.
When the next village looms unexpectedly out of the night, I’m fighting to keep walking. A little voice is telling me I could sleep under an unpturned boat. Just a couple of hours out of the rain and be on my way.
But I know when I stop, getting going again will be hard.
The only person outside looks like a sailor, making his way home across the square in the dark, with the peak of his stormcoat pulled down over his head.
“How much further to Stormhaven,” I croak.
He jumps. His night-blind eyes can barely make me out. Perhaps that’s an advantage.
“You’re here,” he says when he recovers. “This is Stormhaven.”
Goddess be thanked.
But I can’t turn up at my future employer’s house tonight. Apart from not even knowing which house it is, I look like a drowned scarecrow.
“I need an inn. Is there one here?”
“Down in the harbor, lass. The Spyglass. Look for the lighted sign above the door.”
His eyes are adjusting to the darkness. He peers closely at me.
“Are you all right?” he says.
“I will be, thank you. A bath, a night’s rest, you won’t recognise me. I hope.”
He chuckles and points me down a street.
The Spyglass is easy to find, and just getting out of the cold rain is a blessed relief.
I don’t go too far in because I’m dripping water like I brought in my own stormcloud with me. I stand, swaying, starting to steam in the heat and using my knife to release me from the tape holding my backpack.
“Oh! Lad, lad, look at you!” the innkeeper bustles up. “Thought a merman had swum up out of the harbor for a minute.”
“Mermaid,” I manage to say, as the duffel bag slides from my shoulders and I groan with relief.
He roars with laughter, and pulls me inside, placing a chair in front of the fire.
“I’m your host, Warwick,” he says. “And these fine people here are the salt of Stormhaven and the finest of Praedarth, from up the way.”
I’m the center of attention, which was not how I anticipated arriving in the village I hope is my future home and place of employment. Especially not looking like a bedraggled tramp, or a sunburnt mermaid. A Dancing Mistress should have poise. I’m sure it says that in the manual.
I can afford the light beer that appears in front of me, and the lamb pie, I hope.
It being quiet enough, the innkeeper sits down to find out all about me, and gives me an opportunity to ask, with some anxiety, what a room costs.
“Oh, no, lass. Got no rooms left in this inn, and this is the only one in town,” he says. “You can sleep in the stable though. It’s dry and it’s warm enough. And free.”
“Done.” My pride has shrunk in the rain. “I need to get presentable tomorrow. Do you think you might loan me the use of a bathroom in the morning?”
“Oh, yes. You’re not going back on the road tomorrow, then?”
“No,” I say between mouthfuls of pie. “I’ve come to take up a job in Stormhaven. I just need to find which house when it’s not dark and raining.”
“A job?” He looks puzzled and sits back in his seat. “Now, lass, I know everyone in the town. Unless you’re a sailor or a shepherd, I’m not sure there’s work for you.”
His audience nods wisely along with him. He knows everyone. And there are no jobs.
“Not that type of job,” I say. “It’s a job I arranged through a broker.”
“Oh! Broker! Heard of that. City type of thing I must say. Not what we do here.” The listeners heads shake. Not what we do here. “But still, what’s the job?”
“A Dancing Mistress,” I say, through gritted teeth. My heart plummets at the expressions on their faces.
But the innkeeper’s face clears. “Ah! That explains it, lass.” He laughs. “Dry yourself out, eat your pie and drink your ale. Old Warwick will make a call.”
Fortunately, his audience stare at him in puzzlement, and he knows he has to explain to them, if not to me.
“Well, we don’t have call for Dancing Mistresses and the like in Stormhaven, do we?” he says. “But there’s a place that does.”
“Ah!” another man gets it and claps his leg. “It’s the sort of thing you’d get up at Stormhaven Cardu.”
“I’m in the wrong place?” I sigh, feeling every muscle whimper. “How much further?”
“More than you want to walk tonight,” Warwick says. “Yes, this is Stormhaven Wyck, the village of Stormhaven. You want Stormhaven Cardu, up on the headland. Another hour or so, a steep climb, and one you may not need to do. I’ll call Gaude.”
With that obscure comment, he goes off and I’m left fielding gentle questions, mainly about where I’d walked from and how long it’s taken.
Warwick is quickly back in the bar. “No answer. Don’t fret, I’ll try calling Lady Roscarrow. It’s at the back of my mind Gaude had need to be over that way today.”
I try to stop him; I don’t want any Lady being disturbed tonight, but he’s quicker than I am in this state.
By the time he comes back, still unable to get through, I’m fading fast. It’s been a long and hard day. The food and sitting still have finished me off. All I can think of is lying down and sleeping.
The innkeeper takes my duffel and a lantern. Seeing me wince and limp when I walk, he quickly grabs a bottle from behind the bar and then guides me out to the barn behind his inn.
A couple of horses blink sleepily at me. My stall is the free one at the end, and it’s a measure of how exhausted I am that I don’t argue with Warwick taking my boots off.
He hisses through his teeth at what he sees.
“Ah! Thought so,” he says.
He takes the bottle he brought and sets it in the straw beside me. It’s a quarter full.
“Now, lass, I would advise you to wash your feet with that.”
“What’s that?” I mumble.
“Well, officially,” he replies, “it’s bale-fruit brandy. But ’round here, we just call it Headless. Whatever you do, don’t drink it, but it the very thing for blisters and the like. Now, I must get back to my bar. I’ll try calling Cardu again later and we’ll sort you out in the morning whatever happens.”
I mumble thanks and keep myself awake long enough to clean my feet with the brew.
It stings, so it must be doing good.
The smell, on the other hand, is a mixture of boat varnish and day-old dead things.
Doesn’t make any difference. I’m asleep before I’ve got the cork back in the bottle.
And awake to lanterns and flashlights and loud voices.
It’s still pitch dark outside. Warned by the smell and the feeling of damp, I look down. In the bobbing lights, I realize the uncorked brandy bottle has tilted and leaked over my shirt as I slept.
“For sky’s sake! She’s a bloody drunken tramp off the road, Warwick, not some missing Dancing Mistress come to see me! I don’t have time for this.”
Even to my tired brain, certain things are clear, foremost among them that I have created the worst possible first impression with my employer. That’s my prospective employer—I haven’t got the job, and it doesn’t sound like I’m going to get it.