Kinslayer Chronicle Part 6
More Kinslayer Chronicle as the month of November marches inexorably towards its end.
Chapter 4 Part 1 – The Roots that Grew
There are those that would slander the name of the Maen Nkowainn. Thieves and liars, they say, a people with nothing good to their ways but glib tongues trained only in loosing men of their coin and women of their virtues. Their bright head is a warning, their jewelled eyes a honeyed trap. Many take to the reputation, playing the part of vituperator and villain. But not all bands are so bent to scandal. Some turn their reputation to an advantage. For there is but one place that those of questionable fibre can find refuge.
And the troubadours and bards are celebrated the grander their reputation is no matter what that reputation carries. To be known is a power that carries more weight than coin. And the Maen Nkowainn are a prideful bunch. Many turn their minds to the oft celebrated soothsaying. People put stock in the elderly Maen sight and the old mothers needed only but a beaded scarf and some reflective surface to turn their sight to the aid of villagers and townsfolk desperate to know the success of their crops or secretive pining of fair maidens. And the best part is the predictions don’t have to be true – they just have to be true enough until the caravan has packed and sailed elsewhere.
It was on these creaking ships I was born. It was among my people’s songs that I had been raised. The Maen Nkowainn caravans are tight communities. We care for each other because no one else will. We represented the standard caravan: part opportunistic merchants, part wandering criers, part entertainers and storytellers and part rabble-rousers. My father was the leader of our bardic troupe, and the greatest actor amongst his kind. His performances were legendary. So stirring was his rendition of the Death of Bauldr that it was said to warm the heart of Queen Elizador enough for a single tear to freeze upon her cheek. So lascivious was he, that courtiers kept their daughters and wives from the King’s hall when he came to visit. They say he could charm the ring right off a lady’s finger.
But many times the Maen Nkowainn mystique does much of the work. People see the hair and the eyes and they are apt to believe everything else. However, my mother was not one of our people. So few take to the caravans, for while brief courtships can leave treasured stories in their passing, few people would wish to adopt the lifestyle. For every maiden and sir that fell for the comforting embrace of a Traveller, there were double as many who wouldn’t so much as toss a rope to save one floundering in a river. But my mother was no ordinary woman.
She never spoke of her past. Not to me, at least. My father only said that they met under circumstances so fortunate that they had to be arranged by Gefjun’s own gilded touch. He said that it was a daring rescue that brought her into the folds of the troupe. And while my young mind conjured many a fanciful tale for an explanation, despite my best protests and pleas they would divulge no further information.
And while the lips of the Maen love nothing more than the kiss of a good tale, my troupe seemed particularly reticent in releasing this one from their sealed throats. I did gather pieces here and there. For even Maen children are wily. I knew she had been of noble birth. I also knew that she had made a decision and that had barred them from ever returning to her home or her family. But this seemed not a source of bitterness. The caravan admired her for this action and by her own admission she saw herself as having no other family than those that shared their ships with her.
Many a day I wondered if her heritage made me some fanciful noble. I made the mistake of voicing these thoughts to our fol. Bradain laughed for days and took to calling me his ‘Little Majesty.’ And while he teased and japed about it, producing many chuckles from the rest of the troupe, I knew I never received an answer from him. Nor anyone else for that matter. And with the Maen, there is as much to learn from that which isn’t spoken as there is with what is.
But if I were to learn more, it wouldn’t be from my parents. They were happy with their lives and had no intention of settling in some stuffy court. For them, their kingdom was the Crossroads. The inns and taverns were their fiefdoms and the children gathered before the fairs their subjects. But we didn’t just entertain small towns. Our name was held with much esteem and there were lords who delighted in us gracing their halls. And while their patronage was good, I knew where the love of my family lay.
For them, there was no greater joy than the small towns. The people who crowded muddy hillsides during the worst rains just to catch a glimpse of the colourful jugglers with their bells or the soothers hidden behind their shining curtains. There was such glee in their faces, a marvel and astonishment over the simplest slights and the basest pyrotechnic. Nobles often took to trying to puzzle a trick on stage or dictating the staging of a play in a show of their own intellect or power. But the villagers rarely made such demand. And there were times when my mother and father would roll out the carts for performances with only some bushels of oats or baskets of roots as pay.
I thought those performances were beneath them. They had the skill to be court performers. More than once a lord had asked for singular patronage but each time they refused. Even though my father had the best songs and my mother wrote the best lyrics. They would take the days of meagre porridge and bitter mead as we scrounged for a place to perform if just to hear those nights of pure adoration from the crowd. To see a tavern full of rugged sailors standing to their feet in applause with tears staining their cheeks.
All in all, it was a pleasant childhood. It was certainly better than some remote farmstead. I grew up in a fair. And while at the time I thought it humdrum, I now look back on those days as some of my fondest. So much is wasted on the ignorance of youth. Only now can I sympathize with my mother and a life on those rocking ships whose wheels had a tendency to fall off no matter the state of the road. At the time, all I could think of were Kings and Queens with silly fantasies of golden crowns and mighty feasts. But what child doesn’t fantasize about being a prince? My only quirk was never imagining being a bard.
But though I may have harboured dreams of something greater, I never loathed the life I had. How could I? Every day was filled with juggling and merry-making. There was much to learn on those creaking ships as we sailed from town to town. There was, of course, the obvious lessons on how to handle a Maen craft. People sneer at our ships, laughing that we must sail upon the land because we can nary afford the horses to pull our wagons. If only they knew half the truth. Our landships are a source of pride. Each morning, we raise the bright sails in quiet reverence for the lands that were lost. A common Maen tale goes that the fabric which pulls our ships is made from the sinew and marrow of our ancestors. That’s why the lead vessel is always red. The bodies of our parents pull us along the roads we must travel, guiding us down the paths that will one day bring us home once again.
And harnessing the winds of the land require all the help we can get. Unlike the oceans, we have to contend with hills and mountains. Of course, we have horses to pull us when the wind is weak or the weather uncooperative. But when it is right and the path laid bare, there is no feeling in all the realms than being at the helm of one of those vessels. The sails envelope the skies and you glide as if you were all but soaring through the clouds like a great bird. The wind washes over the decks in refreshing gusts, and you man the pulleys and ropes, working as one of the troupe in staying the course.
Those ships are much like performing a play. Every member has a part and we each rely implicitly on the other to do their role. There is no question of skill or competency. If the Ceann Fine says you are to tend the aft rutter, none will raise any doubt. Even if you are not but a child. For any member would gladly demonstrate his skills if asked. And I was an incurably curious child. They say the moment I could walk, I was waddling to the main throws and watching the twist of the ropes over one another as if the Maen were braiding a giant’s mane. Every time we lifted the sails, I was there and as I grew older and I older my questions became unending.
Our Ceann Fine was the first to let me practice. I remember standing upon the deck, watching as his hands gripped the main levers that controlled the primary sail. He seemed to focus more on the cloth than the road ahead, the wind blowing through his long hair as if it was a brilliant red banner stretching from his scalp. He saw me, smiled and motioned towards the controls. Hesitantly, I approached. By his direction, I attempted to make the slight adjustments.
“Watch the wind,” he said. “For a moment’s notice can turn the sail and steer us off course.”
I nodded, though I didn’t know exactly what he meant. But I looked over the rails, intent on seeing that which had no form. He laughed, resting a hand on my shoulder and pointing with his weathered finger.
“The important thing about directing is looking for signs which no one else sees.”
He was pointing me to the trees and I immediately gathered his intention.
“The leaves, they bend with the wind.”
“Precisely, my boy. We need not wait for our sails to catch when the land is more than willing to warn us of its own accord.”
He showed my the levers, indicating where and what they controlled. By easing the tension in some cords you could produce more or less slack in the lines. This, in turn, adjusted the sail’s resistance to the sky’s breath. Through this careful interplay could the fickle wind be captured for our great ship.
“It takes many years to understand the language of the heavens,” the Caenn Fine said. “I remember my dad sitting me upon the deck, spending hours discussing the stars, clouds and birds. When navigating the invisible currents, you must learn to read every little clue you’re given. Your crew, nay, your people are relying upon your judgement. Just like I trust in my throwers to catch their lines if things come loose, so too do they trust in me to chart them the smoothest, safest course.”
I nodded, though I didn’t truly understand. But there was a determined look in my eye which my Caenn Fine saw and he laughed as he lifted my hands to the smoothed wood.
“Why not give it a try?”
“Are you sure?” I asked. My voice soft and weak like the child I was.
“Do not fear. I shall be at your side the entire time. Nothing will go wrong.”
I leaned on my toes, my fingers wrapping furtively about the levers. The Caenn kicked over a box, lifting me gently on its hard surface so I could comfortably hold the mechanisms and see out over the rail. I took a slow breath, the weight of my position heavy on my shoulders now that it was my hands holding the straining ropes.
“Don’t forget, watch the trees.”
I turned, my young eyes intently upon the tree line. The branches swayed slowly in a soft, rhythmic beat. With each bow, I could feel the accompanying touch of the wind brush against my cheek. By timing their sways with the soft beat of my heart, I was able to synchronize my breathing with the wind. Each exhale was as if it was my own lungs pushing upon the sails. I blew gently through pursed lips and watched as the sail above bulged in the centre and pulled our craft forward.
I turned to the levers. Having never been this close to them, I didn’t know exactly what they controlled. I gently released the clinch on the rope closest to my right. Almost immediately, the Caenn was at my side, pulling a few of the others and readjusting the lengths of the ropes to compensate for the slack I’d caused. I looked to him, worried I’d made some mistake. But he just kept his grin.
“You can’t just change one rope without realizing the effect it’ll have on the others,” he explained. “Everything is tied together. Pressure on one ripples through the whole.”
He manoeuvred a few more and I watched closely the ropes that readjusted to his actions. With one pull, a winch rattled and a line rolled above me. Looking behind, I could see the thrower reacting at the change as if he were no more than a cog in the whole device. Each worker kept careful attention on his own portion of the ship and took action at the first change to his charge.
I traced the remaining lines back to their source then took the levers in hand.
With a pull, I could feel the ship shake as the rigging above shifted and men sprang into action. A push in the other direction caused others on the opposite side of the deck to grab their lines. The Caenn was at my side quickly again, but as I worked the levers quickly, he stayed his hand from interfering.
The ship rocked and groaned, shifting from side to side upon the road. But my breathing was strong and though the first few steps were rocky, my ears seemed in tune with the lilting of the deck, the grunting of its workers and the creaking of the masts. The Caenn had been right, there was so much to see and hear to guide you that you didn’t need to see the wind itself. You saw it everywhere else.
And our landship swerved, taking a hard turn off the road and rolling quickly upon the hills. There were a few shouts of surprise but as promised, the men manned their posts. Each shift in the ropes sent the lines spinning quickly through their metal holds. The ship rocked and bounced, cresting the top of a hill and sending a small flock of grazing birds into the sky. We landed with a slight jolt but the wind held true.
Another breath and we sailed down the side of the hill, our hair wiping wildly about our faces. The heaven’s embrace was cold and crisp as we rushed over her land. I closed my eyes briefly and we sailed so soft and true that it felt like we had been borne upon blessed wings to take residence among the clouds.
The ship veered its course, heading for the sharpest hill. I expected the Caenn to step forward and take the controls from my hands. But his grin simply broadened as he pressed his hat securely upon his head. The hill rose above us, and for a moment it felt like we were drawing up against an unscalable mountain. Its shadow fell dark and cold. As we reached its roots, I could feel the ship begin to slow and the wheels grow heavy beneath their load. For a moment, I worried that perhaps I was about to lead us into capsizing.
But the Caenn had said that to steer was to trust. So I put my trust in his words, his crew, his ship and my people.
I took firm hold of the levers and I made my adjustments.
With a long, slow exhale, the wind built as we began to angle against our adversary. The sail grew taut and the ropes creaked beneath the strain. The fabric stretched against its rigging. The deck shook and groaned beneath the strain. But we rose and I watched as the prow raised, pointing heavenward as we all looked to the sky. The shadow of the hill retreated and our momentum slowed until that one moment when we balanced seemingly unmoving upon its tip.
For a moment, the land spread out before us and it felt as if we had been plucked from the earth to look down on this worldly domain from Freyre’s great throne. It lasted but a moment though that expanse seared into each of our memories. Then, there came the soft shift in my gut. It felt like my stomach was racing to my throat.
The prow of the landship angled down and I could hear the wheels begin to spin wildly beneath us. The wind rushed up as if mighty Freyre was trying to keep us in his lap. The Caenn laughed wildly and I couldn’t help but smile as the ship flew at such speed down the other side. Instinctively, my hands worked the levers and the sails adjusted and loosened letting the full descent fly us forwards. Such momentum we built, such speed we carried that I felt like I’d left all my thoughts and worries on that hilltop. They still rested in Freyre’s hands, looking out over the world while my body ran blissfully free.
We struck the bottom of the hill and the entire crew bobbed like a cork line cast into a river. The ship lilted on its side, the port end taking far more of the impact than the aft. I felt the deck angle and my mind quickly calculated the needed adjustments to bring us around. We tossed roughly from side to side but the sail snapped into form again and we pulled upon the road, joining the back of the caravan.
The Caenn then slipped his big, warm hands over me, gently prying my fingers from the levers. He smiled and directed me aside. I was still grinning and feeling my heart beat heavy in my chest. Never had I felt more alive.
It was in that moment that I heard the cheering. I turned, seeing the rest of the crew – my family – whooping and hollering upon the deck. Their fists raised triumphantly in the air and the same silly grin was mirrored on each their faces.
The Caenn brought us into a gentle roll in line with the other ships and looked at me.
“Never have I seen such grand sailing,” he said. “Not since the first of us had taken to the sail and great Illeare started us on the grand Wander. You’ve got a real talent, Koudi. You’re a natural Caenn.”
My mother and father came to me that night as we sat around the campfire. They had ridden their own ship that day and they laughed at my performance. My father was full of exaggeration and boasted about how well his son had first manned the helm. My mother started with practised concern and admonishment for the Caenn’s recklessness in permitting me to drive the jagged moors, but my father’s enthusiasm was far too infectious. By the end of the night, she had already started composing a few lines for a song she later titled Cygnet’s First Flight. My father presented it at the Fyrste’s court to standing applause.
But this was the story of my life.