Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Barren Time: Part Two

“The iron miners of the Fackablest are about to petition to form their first guild.”

Ryn looked up at Pol from the ledger, keeping a finger in place. It was not yet noon, or their unofficial lunchtime meeting. And his finger pointed to two lines at once. “You’re not serious.”

His old friend shrugged one shoulder. “I’m just saying – there’s a committee on Free Cities. I think you should be on it.” Being Head of any guild sat one immediately on the People’s Council, which advised the Faith on public affairs. Committees on that council researched and advocated for particular concerns.

“You think I should do a lot of things. I still don’t sleep at night.” Ryn still had not told his friend or anyone about what had happened in the hills outside the city. He mostly did not know. He had awoken face-up on hard-packed soil, half-blinded by the sun that was just breaking over the mountains east of the city. He could only have been unconscious for a watch or so. He was covered in a thick red gel that he had had to swim in the river to wash off before he went in to the shop and told his apprentices he had been sick. His insomnia continued.

His friend cracked half a smile. “That’s the thing. You’re still not doing everything you can. Look, the Free Cities way up there in the north are the future, just as much as Ariel.”


“Come on. Does the Temple really think we can’t count? Fewer scribes and novices every year. That’s why they need more guards. The Profusionist stuff is failing. How much longer do you think the veilmen have? A hundred years? Two hundred? Before the quicksword’s just another relic on the mantelpiece. Ryn, no one’s uncovered a new Well in a hundred and twenty five years.”

The blacksmith thought he might have found one. From what he did remember of that night, he had floated for a long while in an ocean of red, and a woman with what looked like silver metal hair had approached him wearing a dress that bared one breast. She had spoken in his mind. He could not remember what she said or if he had said anything in reply. But if anything like this had happened he had been immersed throughout in a fluid that he could breathe, and the ability to interact directly with the mind was a known quality of the machine intelligences of the Wells the Profusion left behind.


“I’m serious,” Pol went on. “It’s done. We’re the future. You, me, all us poor sods who can’t turn a switch on with our brains. And all the steel and iron and stone we can work with. Them north across the mountains no less than us. Assuming the Faith knows what he’s doing.”

Ryn considered. “The Temple will want in. That’s always the way.” His grandfather had fought to establish the first guilds in the city of the Faith. The Temple had sprung up in the same year, though there were ostensibly no Profusionist machines allowed in Ariel.

Pol frowned. “Then let them. You think Free Cities folk would show up for services every Eightday? Don’t forget, the first Faith sent them away because they were too radical. They keep the old ways. Last time a veilman went up there, they spit on him and he was a Guardian.

 “Yeah,” the blacksmith said again. “Yeah.” He shook his head to wake himself up.

“Say, anyway, you know, Ryn, I’ve been wanting to ask you something. Just curious, is all.”

The old tinsmith paused for moment. The air hung still and hot between them, the first warm day.

“It’s just, how come you’ve never had a family? Kids, and all that. All these years, I’ve never even seen you with a woman. Why is that?”

            When the soft rains came, the frogs of the river valley began to peep at night. Ryn Batyst passed beneath the unfolding buds of the youngest trees and reminded himself that hallucinations often came with sleeplessness. He said this to himself because he believed that the frogs had added their chorus to the song of silence that called him outside the city and because he followed their sound into the high and barren hills and hoped to sink into the ground again. This was ludicrous, because there were no frogs that far away from the river and because surely he would eventually sleep in other ways. 

            And then it did happen again, in a very different place. Ryn had followed the song of the frogs into the hills of the eastern side of the valley, walking through an entire night to get there. There were more trees to the east of the city and also larger cliffs and boulders so that somehow it seemed even less likely that the ground would open up and swallow him until one again it did. This time within the red gel he spoke with a man whose skin and hair and eyes were all the varied green of a forest in midsummer. But then with the logic of a dream the man had walked into him and he had walked into the man until they were one person walking through a day in the life of the green man.

            When Ryn Batyst awoke, it was midmorning and he was naked, with no memory of taking off his clothes although they lay beside him in a pile.

            After that he began to listen for the song throughout the day as he as he harried his apprentices and took his lunch with Pol and especially while he ate his solitary dinner and the sun slid behind the mountains west of the city. When he heard the frogs, he would put down his dish in the stone sink and take up his black Guild cloak against the chill of the night and descend the thousand steps that went to the docks of Ariel. Then he would stand and listen until he could decipher the direction from whence the song came. It was always from a different place, but he would always walk swiftly toward it, and on the nights when he reached the source before the dawn the ground would open up and swallow him.

            Of course, he knew from his few Temple classes that the machines of a Well of the Profusion infiltrated the area around it so that they could conceal and protect it. So the machines of these Wells were temporarily softening the soil to let him pass after their sentience spoke to his mind in invitation. This was the song he heard. As he walked back to the city Ryn Batyst would think about this and try to remember what he had seen and smelt and touched, because these visions had the logic of dreams but lacked their ephemeral feel.

When his great body had merged with that of a small and elderly woman he had enjoyed the smooth cloth of her dress and cupped her fragile hands around a mug of warm drink and laughed as she talked with her middle-aged daughter on the moon of a distant world. And when he had worn an officer’s uniform on a great ship during a battle among the stars, he had felt the shards of metal tear through the younger man’s stomach and the cold air sucked from his lungs as he stared out into the Void through the breach in his own ship’s hull.

            Eventually he understood that these things had all actually occurred. These were not dreams he lived but memories, because he had found the Wells of the Dead of the Profusion, as they called themselves. Nothing like them had been mentioned in any Temple classes. But then Ariel had not existed for many thousands of years, on sites of importance like other cities of the world. It had been founded only four hundred years before by the first Faith, because he had wanted to set Thaeron’s people free from the tyrant-kings and their Profusionist machines, so that there should not have been any Wells in the valley of Ariel at all – except the Healing Well that had saved the first Faith’s life. But there had been, he now knew, an earlier city here, build perhaps when humankind first came to this world or certainly before the Fall, and it was not a city of the living. It was a necropolis of tombs. Ariel was in fact built within the ring of a memorial of the Profusion’s thousands or millions dead.   

            Still, none of this thinking prepared him for the morning when the frogs did not stop singing and he awoke to the gurgling of an infant boy, wrapped beside him in the clothes that he did not remember taking off and putting there.


“Did you honestly think I wouldn’t notice? Or that I wouldn’t care? Lingering grace of the Profusion, man! The Tinkerer’s? I still too new to sleep through his speeches.”

Ryn’s patience frayed and snapped because his frustrated sleeplessness had become embodied in the form of a mewling infant and because that morning he had to carry the boy to the old nanny in the pale washed-out light of dawn before he went to council or into the shop. He had come to hate that time first because it represented his last failure to sleep before the sunrise and now because it meant he had not found one of the Wells of the Dead the night before.

Polec Burows raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.”

“Whittles, who won’t change the privy papers in his guild without council approval, slides in a last-minute addendum about naming a bursar? In the hope no one would notice? Sure, half the Council was asleep. But a Head picks a bursar because he won’t be managing guild funds himself. Because he’s seeking re-election.”

Ryn could not figure what to do with the child or anything about him. He would not leave him to the beggars. The Temple took orphans but would try to make him their own creature with their doctrine, and he could not imagine where the boy had come from in the first place. He had been alone in the hills and the infant had not been there before he went into the Well. He would think about the boy and try to understand what to do with him as he struggled to stay awake through the daily meetings. At night, he fed the infant with bottles of milk that the old woman gave him. Often, he wondered why he took back the boy at all.

But at the mention of the tinkerer’s soporific speech, Pol could no longer restrain his grin. “Oh, alright. It was smartly done, wasn’t it? No one suspects, but there it is, in the books, though old Harv will probably croak before he gets the chance. Besides, there’s precedent from our own guild.”

“Because the man who founded it only had apprentices!”

Pol sighed, waving a hand. “Look, the Historians serve until death. The Faith serves until his death. Guardians defend their lands unto their deaths! And the whole time, they all gather power, influence. Are we really supposed to step down after eight years and say we’ve been represented?”

“The Faith represents us. He’s the one the Council reports to!”

His friend started, just as he had when Run had pounded the table. “Yes, yes. The Faith speaks on behalf of the powerless. Defends the meek, judges the law…”

Ryn squinted, began playing with the cup that held his noonday beer. “Yes. The Faith does.” His only consolation, he decided, was that the child seemed to enjoy going out with him to the Wells of the Dead at night. The boy’s sighs and gurgles merged with the song of the frogs and the silence of the street to call Ryn Batyst outside of his house and into the city and beyond it. And when he came to the source of the song, the Well would open to him and child both and let them in, where the boy seemed most happy and alert. Sometimes, he babbled, though he seemed very young to do so.  

Pol shook his head. “Let me tell you something, a secret. Most of the Heads don’t know. The Temple is in debt to the Bankers to the tune of six million pieces.”

Batyst felt his eyes grow wide. “Six million! How the Void?” Then, after a while, “The Bankers wouldn’t talk. You know someone inside the Temple!”

Pol raised an eyebrow. “Anyway, income isn’t meeting expenditures. But that wasn’t my point.”

“Oh? And what was that?”

"My point was this,” Sol said, pointing. “The Faith judges the law. The Faith represents the powerless.”


“Ryn, what if we aren’t powerless anymore?”

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