Maize and her parents journey to the city of Rota
| Maize was weary, but not tired. It was the kind of weariness that comes from walking a great distance under the same sky in the same land for days on end. The plains rolled on forever. Each grassy hill they crested gave a view of the next. In her mind, she knew that she had run three times this distance when she completed the Athon, but this felt different. For one thing, she actually ran the Athon; this was a leisurely stroll in comparison. Once, she had gone on ahead by herself, leaving the other Athon runners behind her. Now, she had to keep pace with Par, who was slowed down by the overflowing wagon of harvest he hauled.
The Zeas had left the Fymers behind at a crossroads a while ago, the parting short but sweet. Even if she did find work in the city, Maize hoped to pay them regular visits once they got their farm back in order.
As they reached the top of a ridge, she looked out over the scene before her. A golden-beige sea flowed around them, waves of wind swaying the grasses and stubby shrubs. All was quiet except for the blow of the breeze in her ears, and the early-evening sun shone in her eyes. In the distance, she could see squares of farmland hugging close to winding rivers. Her father stepped up next to her and took in the view.
“Rota will be a place of grey walls and dirty streets. You will never see something like this, in a place like that,” he said.
“The plains aren’t going anywhere. I’ll see them when I come to visit you. Besides, I’m sure the city has a thousand sights I’ll never see anywhere else.” Maise replied.
“I just do not understand why you want to go live in such a place. Cities are filled with crime and filth.”
“And how do you know that? Have you ever seen a city?”
“Once, when Mr. Fymer and I needed to sort out a land-ownership fight with the neighbors. It was an awful experience. I was walking down the street when, from some widow above, someone emptied a washpot onto me.”
Maize snickered at the thought. “I suppose I’ll have to keep my eyes up then,” she said.
“Why Rota of all places? Could you not have chosen a city that was not on the other side of the continent?”
“Rota is special. I want to see Giants and talk to people from all kinds of nations. I want to stand where my great-great-grandparents stood at the Battle by the Burning Lake. I’ve even heard that they have an entire marketplace dedicated to buying and selling monsters. That’s awesome!”
“Let us see if you still think it is that amazing when we actually get there.”
The two of them had begun to descend the ridge-side, moving slow while they talked. Mexi had trotted on ahead and was examining a dip in the ground.
“This depression in the ridge will give us some shelter from the wind. I recommend we stay the night here. If we leave by sunrise, we could make it to the portal by this time tomorrow.” she called back to them.
The next hour was spent kicking rocks out of their camp and flattening down the grasses to spread blankets on. Mexi was sure there would be no rain overnight, so they didn’t bother with the tent. By the time they had set their bedding, drank from the water bags, and grazed on the nearby grass, the sun had finished setting. Par sat down on his blanket and clipped one of his sanding tools to his fore-right horse-shoe. Using the other fore-hoof to hold a block of wood steady, he began scratching away at it under the rising stars.
*skrit skritch skrit skritch*
He had begun this sanding on the night the farm burned down, the wood itself had been chipped out of the dining table. Currently, it resembled little more than a box with smooth edges, but Par was an accomplished sander, and he had a vision for this project. Mexi and Maize sat together nearby, watching him absentmindedly. Maize rested her head on her mother’s shoulder and asked: “Mum, do you know any happy-fluffy stories?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You know, stories without stakes or consequences. Something that’s just light and fun.”
“Hmmm… how about ‘Young Love and Snow’? It’s the tale of a unicorn who fell in love with a beautiful mare. When the two get into a snowball fight, the very first snow-vapors are created.”
“And everything ends happily ever after?”
“I’d say it does.”
“Then I’d like to hear that one, please.”
Horses don’t sleep as humans do. They only need three or four hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle. Journeying at night is dangerous, as beasts and bandits are not the only things that stalk the darkness. Most farm work requires the light of day and the help of human hands to accomplish, so horses are left with little labor to do once everyone else is asleep. Instead, the equine peoples have become masters of the spoken arts and other crafts. No one can tell a story like the Legend Keepers of the eastern tribes, and the Riddle Masters of the west hold monthly competitions that attract and befuddle the crowds of onlookers.
The rhythm of her father’s sanding in one ear, and her mother’s passionate sagas in the other, the three of them simply abiding together beneath the blanket of the night: this is what Maize would miss the most.
The night passed in peace, and the family set to packing their gear as the first slivers of daylight broke on the horizon. Maize looked out over the expanse around their little camp. The undulation of grass seemed to stretch out forever.
In most other situations she would not have noticed it, but the monotonous terrain made discrepancies stand out. She turned to give it a closer look, but only saw the grass shifting in a peculiar way. Silently nudging her parents, she pointed to the spot, which was closer now and moving toward them at a steady pace. Mexi reared up and tilted her head to gain a better view. As she came down she said, “I think that might be a blight circle.”
“Is it dangerous?” Par asked.
“Probably not, I’ve only seen one once. That was a long time ago though.”
“How long ago?”
“It would have been my second year out roaming with my father’s herd. One of the elders told me that it was the spirit of a wicked horse, doomed to wander alone forever. They are cursed to starve, and all food that comes near them turns bitter and blighted. One of my cousins was foolish enough to eat some of the blighted grass on a bet. It made him so sick that he couldn’t keep any food down for three days.”
“What if you stand in the circle? Or what if the circle passes over you while you’re sleeping?” Mazie asked with concern in her voice.
“I don’t know. I don’t believe they can sense us, and it wouldn’t make sense if they could hurt us intentionally since then they wouldn’t be alone.”
Par let out an incredulous huff, “It’s probably just some odd plant sickness. Standing here yakking at it won’t get us any closer to Rota, let’s be on our way.”
“That sounds like a good idea. I don’t like the feeling this thing is giving me, whatever it is.” Maize chimed in agreement.
They carried on for another two days, the plains gradually giving way to patches of farmland. Eventually, they could go no further without trespassing on someone’s land. They found a kind farmer who directed them to a road which would take them to the portal town of Ganchindurlen.
After only a short time on the road, Maize began to notice that traffic was increasing dramatically. Merchants wheeled past them in caravans of carts piled high with exotic goods. A great number of farmers were heading to Rota to sell their money-crops, and several were returning with pouches full of profit. Lines of equine and human slaves, some dozens long, were being moved to the portal. These were going to be resold, the harvests having been hauled in and the extra labor no longer needed. Companies of soldiers marched along to the beat of marshaling horns. These were either being relieved from occupation duty or going to replace the current guard.
“I’ll give the city folk this,” Par said to no one in particular, “They know how to keep the streets busy.”
The road brought them through the outlying boroughs that had spilled out beyond the walls and defensive works. Ganchindurlen was more than a journey town, it was also a military base. It was the rallying point for West Peopan’s occupation forces, as well as an important strategic location for the nation. Since its creation during the war, the portal had become central to the country’s economy, allowing for trade with every other nation on the continent, all of whom also possessed a portal linked to Rota.
After a great deal of waiting at the single city gate, Par paid the toll and the family moved through. The walls they passed were double-layered, equipped with parapets and ballistae facing in, as well as out. The town was built to defend the portal from external threats, as well as defend West Peopan from threats coming through the portal. Not that anyone expected trouble from the Groll of the Lightless Land these days, the occupation made sure of that.
Once they emerged from the shadow of the walls, the three horses found the streets more clogged with people than any they had yet seen. Everywhere was heard the haggling of prices and hurried commotion at currency exchange houses, market stalls, inns, back-alley dealings, and trades shops. Here they turned aside to one of the exchange houses and traded in their portion of the harvest, including the wagon it was loaded in, for the common coins of Rota. After then pushing through the crowds, they finally set eyes on the reason for all the fervor.
The portal was a sphere set in the ground so that only its upper half could be seen. Maize estimated it would take nearly 300 horses standing nose to tail to span the breadth of it. The surface was perfectly smooth, but it seemed as though this was an invisible barrier set to contain the movement of ethers inside. All varieties of white and lighter blues moved aberrantly beneath the skin of the portal as if a thousand ghostly vapors were storming to escape.
Surrounding the portal was a circular maze of fences, winding back and forth on themselves to make the lines of people waiting for their turn as space effective as possible. Different entrances of this labyrinth were marked off as servicing different kinds of travelers. One was for carts, one for merchants, one for nobility, another for slaves, and several others in addition. A broad path was even set apart for Giants, though there were currently no Giants using it. The three went to enter the appropriate line, but there was a toll-booth at the entrance.
“What?”, Par said incredulously, “But we already paid a toll to get into the city!”
“Commoner foot traffic pays the commoner foot traffic toll.” Said the bored attendant, who was occupied picking something out of his fingernails.
“The merchants have no extra toll forced on them!” Par observed.
“Commoner foot traffic pays the commoner foot traffic toll.” the attendant repeated.
“The gate toll I can understand, walls need money for maintenance after all, but the portal requires no such thing!”
The attendant repeated himself once again.
Before Par could give further argument, Mexi reached her mouth into the money sac around Par’s neck and withdrew the toll. She paid and thanked the attendant before moving into line. Maize looked to her father, but he only grimaced and followed after his wife. This was the longest line of them all, and after an hour of waiting, Maize grew impatient. She saw the path next to their snaking route was a straight line from the edge of the circle to the portal, and it was empty.
“Why don’t they expand our line to include that unused path, it would probably make things go faster.” she said.
Mexi turned to correct her but then noticed something in the distance. Instead, she simply said to her, “Look over there”, and pointed to a spot with her hoof. Maize turned and saw the spot, just barely visible over the walls, coming from the direction of the nearby capital city. Then it was a larger spot, in a moment she could make out the glint of metal. It seemed to bound up and down, occasionally dipping out of sight below the wall. Suddenly it was over the walls and Maize saw that it was a horse in strange armor. The next instant it blasted past down the straight path and into the portal. Such speed should have generated a rushing wind behind it, but maize felt not even the slightest stir of air.
“What in the hay was that?” she asked in shock.
“That was a Windborne”, Mexi replied.
“And what in the hay is a Windborne?”
“That’s something you should ask Ganzorig. He knows much more about the subject than I do.”
Maize would have inquired further, but the thought of the old blacksmith brought her around to preparing what she would say to him about renting a stable for a season. She had met Ganzorig on occasion before, when the Fymers had family get-togethers, as he was Mr.Fymer’s uncle. He had seemed to be a stern but knowledgeable man, hardened by his work and his experience in the war.
Before she knew it, the Zeas were at the front of the line, and it was time to pass through the portal. The guards opened the fence gate and ushered them on to the threshold. Without any hesitation, Mexi went through first. She was followed by Par, who gave the thing a suspicious sniff first.
At last, Maize stood before the doorway to her future. Would it be like the stories she had been enraptured by all her life? What kind of adventure was this going to be? Fantastic Discovery? Heroic journey? Mortal Tragedy? Epic Romance? Concerned that her own musings might delay her story by even a second, she threw herself into the magic’s embrace.