I never did grow accustomed to the Ulidil Ovoshu—and now, suspecting what I do, I would fear for the soul of any outsider who did. But I learned to bring strong drink with me onto the barge on those nights—my hosts provided me with excellent brandy, which they make from plums—and to bury myself beneath my furs. They allowed me only the warmth of a charcoal burner, which provided heat but almost no light. Light, they explained, was absolutely forbidden. I also began to cease from work on the mornings following the new moon, and my hosts respected my wishes, although they themselves were always filled with energy and good cheer, they left me alone until I had recovered.
It is now that I hesitate to continue with my tale—-not from any sense of personal modesty, but from the fear that the events I relate will make the conclusion seem base. Perhaps it will seem that I am no more than a cad, who showers base calumny for the very worst of reasons—-because a maiden’s family repulsed me.
For, as men in foreign lands do, I fell in love. She was the daughter of a minor official, the Navshith Dar Ayaama, or collector of records. Her name was Aeshal. Like all of her people she was small and dark, with lustrous black hair and skin like bronze. Her eyes—a rarity among her kinsfolk—were a brilliant and startling blue. It was her eyes that first drew me to her, and it was with some surprise that I learned that they were not considered attractive in the village, and that blue eyes were, in fact, believed to be unlucky. So in a sense you could say that her eyes drew her also to me, for none of the local youths persued her, despite the wealth of her father and the gracefulness of her slight form.
Aeshal was herself employed as a clerk for a merchant family, for among the Vaayim it is not considered unwomanly to have a trade, and both boys and girls are taught letters. It was in this capacity that I came to know her, for her employers purchased several of my barges.
By the time of my friendship with Aeshal I had grown accustomed to life in the hills. I no longer ate apart from my hosts, as I had learned and followed the peculiarities of their diet-—they will eat no food that has been cooked in iron, nor any meat from an animal killed with that metal, they keep one set of utensils for meat and another for all other foods, will not serve both cheese and wine in the same meal, and a dozen other laws that cannot be reasoned but simply obeyed.
Many of their other peculiar laws I also obeyed, from habit, and from a desire to respect my hosts. The Vaayim do not bathe their entire bodies at once, but wash their face and chest in water that does not touch them elsewhere. In addition to the dark of the moon they revere many other nights, and mark the rise and set of many stars. Their calendar is complex and astrological and some actions-—speaking to someone of the opposite sex, eating meat, drinking wine, working for pay, lighting a fire—-are forbidden when certain stars are in their ascendancy. Again, I learned to follow, but not comprehend, these laws.
In the company of Aeshal, however, I began to feel that the hills were not simply my lodging place, but my home. Those mysteries that would remain closed to me—-the locked rooms, the curious script, and the ritual of Ulidil Ovoshu-—seemed small things, easily overlooked. With Aeshal I began to walk the hills above the village, to see the wild stone through her clear blue eyes.
It was she who first showed me the Tarn Voshim, the mountain stair. Above the village, which sits at the headwaters of the Gyariane, a valley runs upwards to the peaks above the hills, the true mountains. Through the center of this valley runs the remains of a road. The road is ancient, huge stone slabs laid by some art now lost. For the first time I saw with my own eyes the truth of the stories I had heard of the lost kingdom of the Vaayim.
I had heard, of course, that the Vaayim once ruled an empire—-there is no people on the world, I would venture, who do not have some such tales of vanished glories-—but had counted it for little. But with Aeshal as my guide I began to see evidence that in the case of the Vaayim, at least, it was true.
We followed the road for some distance into the broken landscape. It was not precisely forbidden, for either Aeshal or myself, but it was not done. What was up there was gone, lost forever. My hosts had a reticence regarding the upward slopes of the mountains. Of course, they had a reticence regarding so many things that it was only after I began to exercise my curiosity in force that I learned how unwilling they were to speak of the past.
There was a city, once, far above the hills. It had been called Deodanth, and it was abandoned. Why it had been abandoned, how this exodus had come about, I was given no hint. The subject was closed-—they once had lived there, and now they lived here, and they would say no more. Even Aeshal professed to know no more, although by then I could tell she was lying.
I think now that it was the transparency of the lie that so enraged me. A wiser man would have let the matter drop, would have accepted the gulf that separated her people from his own. For I was not one of them, and would never be one of them. No matter how Aeshal cared for me—and I remain certain that she did—I was Deshvora, an outsider, not of her people, and not, in the final analysis, to be entirely trusted.
The anger of valiant men can drive them to acts of great courage—-the anger of a fool can drive him to an act of great foolishness. At times these can be hard to tell apart. In my anger I swore to Aeshal that I would find the answers she denied me. I would go to Deodanth, and learn the secrets that she would not tell me.
At first she laughed, and I grew more enraged still. Then she divined that I was serious about my intention, and she grew pale, horrified that I would even speak of it.
"You will die" she told me.
"Will your people kill me?" I asked.
"No." she turned away, and spoke in a whisper those words, "Tarn Am Kran."
"What," I demanded, "is Tarn Am Kran? What throne is within what mountain?"
"I cannot say. If you travel in search of Deodanth, you will not find it. If you find it, you will die."
She would not speak another word to me.
In my heart I was then resolved. I would leave the next day at dawn. I would tell no one of my intentions. Perhaps Aeshal would tell them, and perhaps they would seek to stop me, but I thought not. She, I was sure, did not believe I really would go.
The next day, as the village woke, I slipped my travelling cloak about my shoulders and my haversack on my back, and headed up the vast stone stairway that lead to the throne within the mountain.