The Ashes of Argenton
A lady, in provincial, human logic, is defined by her grace and by her ability to withhold impertinent inquiries or too intimate an observation.
A lady might have saved Argenton, but her small-community breeding and refinement forestalled so welcome a possibility: she saw a thing and said nothing of it; she asked no indelicate questions. Her name was known, once, by human and wood-folk alike; but now, like the town of her birth, her name is ash: blown in obscurity by history’s wind.
There are many who have survived the Argenton Massacre and its attendant conflagration. They live in other towns now, and in the lakeside city of Mercer, with a river through its heart. They wear the ashes of Argenton in tattoos carved into the flesh of their hands: marks—in Mercer city logic—so that the wooden folk of the marshlands might know their specific human enemies.
Ozryn Kal wears such a mark.
“You’re a fool to trust them,” Penna says in the manner of a Mercer-born woman, her opinions given as freely as her observations and impertinent questions.
“And I’m a coward,” Ozryn says as firmly as he can manage, “if I refuse the opportunity to face my own history.”
Penna waves dismissal at his words. Withering disdain sparks in the icy-green depths of her gaze. It is a warm day, sunny on the banks of the Mercer River, where fisher-boats bob in lazy, undulant currents, and where the stink of fish blood and scales draws a daily horde of sleek and witty cats. They are keen in the sense of back-alley instinct and crafty feline intellect; Ozryn admires them and watches them, as happy as any country-boy at the sight of sun-craggled fish-gutters throwing entrails and silvery heads to patient she-cats and wiry, surly toms.
As a municipal clerk, Ozryn has little need for street-cats and the stink of the fish-docks, but he enjoys mid-day meal amid the sounds of laughter and talk in his native language. The fishermen of Mercer count the remnants of Argenton in their prodigious number, and they are a welcome break from the Mercer-arrogance Ozryn endures from dawn to dusk on every day from Friar’s Day to Septimen.
Now, at lunch with Penna, Ozryn wishes for solitude. It was her idea to meet him here; her idea to eat in the fish-stink and the glottal noise of spoken Marsh. These things—she likely assumes—are vital to Ozryn in crude and provincial ways, and so she indulges him (as Ozryn interprets her actions) in order to maintain whatever hold her romantic agenda requires. He likes her well enough, as well as any city-bred woman with eyes in the colors of moss, ash, and ice, but he is different in ways she refuses to understand. She says he is half-feral, like the cats prowling the dockside streets. She says he is exotic, and in that single word, he hears the arrogance of Mercer, and its refusal to accept an Argenton man as fully, equally human.
“Her romantic eye is more than a free man might want,” old Kellus said once. “She has the Mayor’s ear and so you’ll be wise one if you indulge her little shrew’s gentle fantasies.” Kellus is an Argenton man, displaced long before the Massacre, and so he bears no mark. His restaurant is open to human and wooden alike. Even now, as Ozryn sits across from Penna, he is aware of woodman attention boring into his back as if numbing, cold pokers have been jabbed into his flesh.
“You’re best to ignore the wood-folk too. They’re of a different sort than you might know, and so their manner’s not what you’d imagine. They mean no offence with their stares and their whispers, but this is their world, and so man-blood’s as foreign to them as a splice factory is to us meat and bone sorts of people. Don’t raise your hackles when they sniff at you, or stare; you’re an alien and probably the very nightmare they remember from when they were wee little seedlings.”
Kellus is a man of stunning perceptual depth: a restaurant man as he defines himself. He is Ozryn’s closest in-city friend, and now—as always—Ozryn eats for free just as long as he keeps to his promise of ale with Kellus on every Frater’s night.
Penna concentrates on her salad now, and wrinkles her nose at a waft of fish-stink. She shrugs. “I’m just afraid for you,” she says. “Afraid of what they might do if they see the history marks you wear on your hands.”
Ozryn nods. “I’m afraid, too; but like Kellus says…if a thing scares you in one particular way, it’s probably the thing you must pursue.”
“It’s a far ride into the Wilds, and you’ve scarcely ever been there.”
“I was born in the Wilds.”
“And your family fled as your whole town burned to powdery ash; you speak Marsh and I can hear the accent of it when you talk, but you’ve got Mercer in your blood now; you’re city-folk.” Sophisticated, she means to say; Ozryn hears implications of that word in her quiet declaration. You’re not a country bumpkin, so why this obsession with making a bumpkin’s journey?
“I’ll be careful,” Ozryn says as gently as he can, chilled that he must imply feelings he does not possess. For his job. For the Mayor. For all of the things Kellus sees, because he’s old enough to know how Mercer works, and how a Mercer woman might be more dangerous than any of the wood-folk from the backwater wilds.
“Careful,” Penna says, “may not be enough.”
Ozryn shrugs. “Kellus is a man of prodigious wisdom,” he says. “And I share ale with him on every Frater’s night. I listen to what he says, and take his advice seriously. He’s told me what he knows of the Wilds and what he knows I’ll face. If you don’t trust my need to do what lies ahead, then at least trust the council he offers me.”
Penna nods, grudgingly, stabbing at olives in her salad.
They spend the remainder of lunch in silence, and then hurry—an hour later—back to the offices that claim their professional focus. It is Ozryn who has the harder work: the tying of loose ends before the week-long journey he’s agreed to take. It is a chilling prospect to spend his last few hours in Mercer, with Penna’s withering disdain weaving through his conscious thoughts, but there’s nothing to do for it but endure, and so, after lunch (alone in his tiny little office) he focuses on ordering the tasks he’ll leave for his assistant.
For the first time in more than thirty years, he’ll see the ruins of Argenton. The thought, as it occurs to him, is hot with sparks of giddy excitement.
Kellus is a man of considerable influence.
Kellus is the confluence of numerous intellectual and observational streams, though he defines himself as little more than a minnow swimming in vast and murky currents. The sea—a thing he calls knowledge—is vast, he says, even beyond his own comprehension. Humans and the wooden-folk are alike in their judgment of Kellus. He is the king of minnows: the wisest of us all.
Kellus, for his part, finds this assessment endlessly hilarious.
“There’s someone you should meet,” Kellus said, once over ale and flat-breads. “He’s a wood-folk gentleman: a scribe and a poet. He burns with passions you know quite well. If you’re smart, you’ll learn to call him your friend. He’ll see beyond the mark on your hand, and can teach you to do the same. He’ll call you friend beyond any range of doubt, but only if you’ll allow it.”
On the following day, as Kellus had arranged, Ozryn met Chessef imDa shel’Hām, and heard—for the first time—the complex, poetic recitation of a wood-man’s fullest name.
“A friend learns another friend’s name,” Kellus said, after Ozryn’s first meeting with the wood-folk scribe, poet, and famous city gentleman, and so Ozryn—with the most earnest intent—learned to address Chessef as any wood-folk might. Fully. And with chanting cadence:
Chessef imDa shel’Hām…gesht ül’Bezd-yálo-hnalat…ük má’álo tisk hem Vittēa mem grüt.
The name, as he has learned it, rolls easily from his tongue; there are pauses in the name, long moments of contemplative and emotional prominence. The fullness of a wooden-folk name is never spoken loudly, never uttered in a hurried and breathless rush.
“I think,” Chessef has said on more occasions than one, “that you have rich, golden sap in your blood.” It is a wood-folk compliment, given with momentous reverence. “My name,” he has observed, “cannot be easy for you, and yet you sing well when you recite it.”
Where Ozryn has grown rounded with the comforts of Mercer and the richness of good food, Chessef is lean in the manner of all wood-folk. He is a man in appearance: handsome as anyone may judge him. He is wooden in color, brown far in excess of Ozryn’s own ruddy, alpine pallor, and tinged—as all wooden-folk are—greenish with shifting whispers of chlorophyll in the texture of his skin. His hair—as any of the wood-folk may call it—is like a thatch of green/black moss, cropped short to the contours of his head. It carries the scent of forest loam and a delicate floral perfume of strange, tangy pedigree. There are no blossoms that carry a wooden man’s scent, and yet the mullein and the violet, the dandelion and the rose are cousins to the wooden-folk breed, as are the oak and the maple, the birch and the elm. The wooden-folk, as Chessef has declared, are the intermingled dreams of the forest and of men.
Most wooden-folk (and most men) do not share this idea.
They are seated—now—on a train bound westward. They’ve secured a semi-private car and so they face one another in the comfort of expensive leather seats in the color of an expensive book’s ruddy, tanned cover; a steward will arrive and offer refreshments. But now, they are alone.
Central Grand Station is a crowded bustle in Ozryn’s left-peripheral sight. He can hear voices raised in varied, overlapping notes of entreaty and farewell—in promises to write, to remember, and to be careful. He can hear the whistles of conductors and the screeching clatter of raw metal wheels on cold metal rails. The air—through the open window—is fat with the redolence of coal-stoked engines, wafts of steamy sweetness from corn-vendors’ carts, and an oily tinge of something like kerosene; he can sense acrid industrial perfumes of mysterious and obscure pedigree. The smells of Mercer, as common—Ozryn thinks—as fish-monger stink at the edge of the river.
“It’s been decades since Argenton burned,” Chessef says, quietly. “Tempers have cooled, and red-blood humans are not so alien a sight in the wooden-towns.”
Ozryn nods. “I’m glad of that.”
“The writing on your hand is the only reminder they’ll have there, and older people will recognize it.” Chessef speaks in calm and measured tones, an expression of vague unrest stenciled across his keen, almost-elfin features. His eyes, almost as black as obsidian, spark with emotions Ozryn cannot fathom.
“I’m ready to deal with that,” Ozryn says.
“It’ll be little more than minor trifles, but it’s important that you remain calm; ignore the old ones who insist that you have your mark retouched and made as vibrant as when it was first carved into your flesh. The most bitter of them may spit on your shadow as you pass. Ignore this and recognize those geriatric fools for what they are. Children may tug at your hair or poke your skin. But they are children, the same among humans, and so—ultimately—harmless and innocent.”
Ozryn nods. He has come to recognize the patterns of Chessef’s speech, and he knows—now—to remain silent until Chessef has said what he must. In silence, he waits for Chessef to continue.
“Most importantly, Ozryn, please do not take offence when you hear a particular word.” Chessef pauses and rubs his hands over the fabric of his black, rough-weave trousers as if wiping sweat from his palms. “ Zábôth is a potent word among provincial wooden-folk. It is casual racism when spoken to a red-blood human, but the intent is soft. You are man of the animal kind, and so you cannot fully understand the sense of terror that inspires this word. Zábôth is the smallest of animals that feeds upon our seed, the animal that eats our young. Red-blood humans cannot understand the anguish and fear of animals embedded in this word, as there is no small and fluffy animal that devours only the youngest of human fetuses. The mark engraved on the back of your hand is Zábôth in its most incendiary sense. You will see and you will hear references to this, especially among the old. No one will dare say aloud that you are a baby-killer; they can see by your age that you are innocent of the atrocities that led to the destruction of your ancestral town, but please be aware that your mark means exactly this, and that the name of your birth-town is synonymous with Zábôth.”
Chessef’s voice is a deep and sonorous baritone with just a whisper of musical woodwinds. He sits back after speaking and closes his eyes.
For a long while, there is silence.
Ozryn has never been one for small talk, and he is thankful that wood-folk are equal in their calm reticence. Now, he considers the importance of Chessef’s words, and spies a glimpse at what he’s most truly in for.
The train lurches once and then glides forward.
Penna has given him a traveler’s memento: a cruel little gift. Ozryn reaches into his pocket and looks at it now. It is brilliant in the colors of silver and sunlight: an amulet suspended from an elegant, narrow chain.
“It’s a reminder,” she’d said, pressing it into his hand. “Just so you’ll remember where you belong.” She’d meant the words as encouragement, Ozryn knew, but something in their tone caught notes of profound insincerity.
It was warm from its place in his pocket and impressive in its weight. The amulet itself is little more than a silver disk, no larger than Ozryn’s thumbnail. It is a copy of Mercer’s most ancient coinage. It is Mercer itself, as old sentiment defines such things: a lodestone. All hearts point to Mercer says the city of itself, and Penna—having lived only in the confines of this river-spanning place—thinks it inconceivable that anyone would want to be anywhere else. Even for a short time.
“You will wear that?” Chessef asked, drawn to the sparkle of the amulet.
“I don’t need to.”
“The woman, Penna…she is special to you?”
“She’s a friendly associate. She wants to be more.”
“More,” Chessef says, as if tasting the word for the first time. “She wishes to become your wife?”
“And you want something else.” It might be a question. It might be little more than an observation. Chessef is ambiguous in his tone, and so Ozryn takes his words as nothing more than observed fact.
“This is difficult,” Chessef says.
The train moves ever westward: the clack-clack-thump of metal wheels at speed over lines of rail, imperfectly joined. Ozryn is lulled into drowsy contemplation by the sound. He talks, in spurts, with Chessef; he orders schnapps, and then coffee from the steward, and allows Chessef to engage him in a game of Chess.
The game, by its end, is a draw.
“You play with patience,” Chessef says. “This is good.”
Ozryn smiles at the compliment.
The train thunders softly on: past towns, villages, and farmstead collectives; past sprawling wood-folk splice factories and compost works; past cryptic, gleaming geodesic blisters of glass tinted in the colors of sunset and flood. These, Chessef says, are solaria and refractories. Some, he says, are places for criminals. Others, he explains, are retreats for the infirm.
Ozryn has heard of refractories. He’s heard of solaria. He cannot distinguish one from the other—not in the wood-folk manner—and something in Chessef’s tone forestalls inquiries into their distinctions. Ozryn laughs at the thought, at the old-town wisdom of withholding impertinent questions or unsolicited observations. Such rules, intended for women, were applicable—as well—to men on trains.
“We will pass Helüret, Chosk’senset, Nemmenvolio and Hü’üsk,” Chessef says, peering out of the window. “We’ll pass Bü’ôr’del. Once, I was pollen at the border of this town. In less than an hour later, we will arrive at Argenton-dáHávôl.”
The wood-folk names roll easily from Chessef’s tongue and strike Ozryn’s ear with the inflections of strange and hypnotic poetry. It is the last name—the largest living town—that captures his attention the most. It is their destination. Argenton-dáHávôl, as the wood-folk call it. Among the humans in Mercer, the name is always spoken in translation. The Ashes of Argenton.
“You’re a man of honor for visiting the place,” Kellus declared, last night, over ale and flatbread powdered with cinnamon and salt. “You can always do worse than visit a town as important to who you’ll become when you leave it. If your dad’s a smart man, he’d swell with a peacock’s pride at your choice of pilgrimage. As your friend, I’m happy to know what you’ll accomplish there.”
Kellus’ words draw a smile across Oztryn’s face.
“Be careful Penna said, even as Chessef stood at Ozryn’s side. “And come back home.”
Her words stung in their implication that Chessef was a dubious friend, that Chessef—born in Argenton-dáHávôl—might allow harm to fall upon him.
You were never even there! Ozryn wanted to say to Penna. So how can you even think that you understand what it is for Chessef to be either my enemy or my friend? How can you judge him lax in the vigil he has promised to watch over me?
But as the train rolls westward, it is Kellus’ gray-whiskered smile that draws a smile across Ozryn’s face. He stares across at Chessef, reading placid and meditative calm written across the elfin-keen set of his features.
Chessef smiles, perhaps bashful in his reception of smiling, human scrutiny. “What?” he asks.
Ozryn laughs. “You’re human by the looks of you, like any bloke in Mercer. It’s just funny—from a human perspective. I’m cousin to the chimpanzee, just as you’re cousin to the turnip.” He laughs again. “I simply wonder what a turnip and a chimpanzee might think if they knew how closely their distant, distant cousins resemble one another.”
Chessef laughs now, a sonorous, melodic sound. “The world,” he says, “would be filled with confused chimps and alarmed turnips.” He waggles his chin from side to side, and closes his eyes. “The turnip is violent in ways no man may understand, even as he eats them; but for wood-folk, turnips are both humorous and foul…it’s terrifying to imagine what they’d likely think of us! It is the stuff of childhood fairytales, filled with ill-tempered hooligans who steal children’s sap-beads if they’ve been naughty on the night before Spring’s Eve. Such hooligans are always turnips.”
For a moment, there is smiling silence and Ozryn falls into half-laughing contemplation of thieving salad-greens.
“Remind me one day,” Chessef says, “to tell you our fairytales.”
Mercer is behind them now, and in Ozryn’s estimation, lies ahead at an equal distance. He thinks of hooligan turnips and wonders at what subtle differences may confront him in Argenton-dáHávôl. He has heard of the town for as long as he can remember; it haunts the conversations between his mother and his father. It has haunted his childhood, and now, he will face it, not with a human friend, but a quiet and accommodating wood-man. A friend, yes, but not as Penna might understand the concept…not as his parents reckon such things.
“I’ll remind you,” Ozryn says, and the words—once spoken—are a welcome distraction from his darker, unwelcome thoughts.
***End of Part One***
As always, thank you for reading and commenting, and I hope you've enjoyed this brief little foray into Ozryn's and Chessef's odd little world.
Sep 3, 2010 11:07:40 pmby CoreyBlack Homepage »
Now I’m wondering what horrible things humans did this time! I suppose you’ll tell me in the next installment. I shudder to think. I like the ambiguous way you don’t reveal whether this is in the future on another planet, or in some strange alternate reality; it’s like you’re letting the reader decide. While I was reading this story my mind started replaying a John Otway song with a chorus that goes… “Beware of the flowers/’cause I’m sure they’re gonna get you…yeah.” And I agree, there is something rather suspicious about turnips. I love the way you can come up with plant people and make them believable. And the next time I see you, I want to hear how long it takes you to say Chessef imDa shel’Hām…gesht ül’Bezd-yálo-hnalat…ük má’álo tisk hem Vittēa mem grüt…
Sep 3, 2010 11:58:19 pmby KatesFriend Homepage »
I am left wondering what awaits Ozryn in Argenton-dáHávôl. Both on a personal level and with respect to the still evident tensions between humankind and the wood-folk. There is much history here that you have cleverly tapped to move the narrative along but still not giving too much away. Judging from the gracious and friendly interaction between Chessef and Ozryn, it is hard to believe that there could ever be conflict between their kinds. Yet, obviously, there was and the wounds are still raw for some.
I love the placing of the two 'alien' societies together, born of the same biosphere. In a deep way, they both belong, neither are the invader. And I expect there is a large scale symbiotic dependency between the two of them. Nature can be a wily taskmaster.
And, though you've only introduced them thus far, I like the concept of refractories. A technology of great interest to those who eat, amongst other things, light. I am taking somewhat liberally from the name but I expect the interior of such places to be wonderous to behold. But perhaps I've got that wrong.
I look forward to part two.
Sep 4, 2010 12:17:43 pmby beachzz Homepage »
When I was a kid and watched those serials every weekend (and, omg, have i just given away too much? lol), it would just make me crazy to have to wait till the next week to see what happened. That's what your stories do as well--you hook me in, then I have to WAIT!! .....waiting.......!!!!
Sep 5, 2010 9:33:48 amby helanker Homepage »
Finally I got time to read this part one. It is rather fascinating. Atleast as far as my english reach to understand it. I got nerveous when Ozryn laughed of their difference of their "origin". Could Chessef take it. He might have been one of the wood-folk, that didnt believe, he was cousin to a turnip :-)
Sep 5, 2010 11:29:14 pmby myrrhluz Homepage »
I have read both, which is cheating a bit, but I sat down with food and knew what I wanted to read. I loved the second paragraph, when I first read it. There is a lilting cadence to it and an inevitability as old as humanity. Perhaps older than that, for who knows if on another world, light years away, creatures follow tradition and let it bind them into ways of being. Miss opportunities and nurture misunderstandings, rather than deviate from expected behavior. Now, having read the rest, I wonder who she was. A farmer, now named by monks?
I'm very interested in the history of this place. I'd love to know about first contact. Since the events that happened at Argenton happened decades ago, either first contact was not long before that, or they have kept ignorant of each other for a long time.
I love Kellus' description of himself, a minnow swimming in the currents of knowledge.
"He’ll see beyond the mark on your hand, and can teach you to do the same." That's a great line. Ozryn defines himself by the mark on his hand, and it will take Chessef (if they develop the necessary bond) to teach him to free himself from that.
Did you say Chessef imDa shel’Hām…gesht ül’Bezd-yálo-hnalat…ük má’álo tisk hem Vittēa mem grüt for Corey? I'd like to hear that too. It made me think or the town in Wales, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. This means "The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio's of the red cave", which made me wonder what Chessef's name means. Is it a genealogy of family history or more descriptive? This is a fascinating place and I want to know more! Excellent story!
Sep 9, 2010 10:46:32 amby minos_6 Homepage »
Your use of the present tense is really effective here, and gives your narrative a nice immediacy, urging the reader along. Your prose style is almost poetic, and reminds me a little of Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes".
You have a knack of revealing the worlds you create in careful portions, but always there appears to be a rich history secreted behind your words. I'm really intrigued to know whether that history is already documented before you write (as Frank Herbert did with his Dune novels) or whether you give hints and leqave gaps where you can develop your themes at a later date.
This is really exceptional writing, and I'm looking forward to reading Part 2 ASAP (sorry, I'm having to play catch-up on your gallery again!).