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This story, written by Andy Goldman, matches the LeyLines world so perfectly that I’m still not convinced that Andy isn’t a sorcerer! You can read more of his work on his Blog (including “The Only City Left,” the story of Allin Arcady and his adventures through a dying, planet-sized city called Earth.) Twitter @lithicbee or Google+!
The Opposite of Indulgence
Kiernan va Zhelvo trudged through the hard-falling snow as fast as he could, sweating and freezing at the same time. He held one hand like a visor over his eyes and with the other he dragged a heavy chest behind him. He was lost and would have been directionless if not for that kizak monster chasing him. Now the only direction that mattered was away.
The snow was waist-high and untouched before him, no surprise in this wilderness. With each step he had to sink into the snow’s cold embrace, lean forward, and drag the chest along with him. Exhausting, body-numbing work. If not for the monster at his heels and the liquor in his belly, he might have given up long before.
The monster. It was so quiet. Perhaps it had given up the chase? But no, it stalked him still. He could just make it out in the distance by the light of the moon, a massive bear with fire in its eyes and pale green fur. Kiernan turned back to the task at hand, making progress bit by bit. Step, sink, lean, drag. Step, sink, lean, drag, ever onward, ever away from the beast that trailed him. He had no idea how long he slogged through the snow. He only knew that when at first he saw the yellow glow in the distance, he scarcely believed his eyes. Torches? he wondered with more than a hint of desperate hope. If he was right, it would be the first break he’d had since the earthquake hit.
The trip had been going tolerably well up until that point, except for the damnable snowstorm that had blown in a day earlier than expected. The caravan master, Vottir, had assured Kiernan that this route was both safe and little-known. Now he struggled to keep the train of anzi and wagons moving through the storm. Not only were the anzi having a hard time in the snow, but they seemed nervous and weren’t taking commands well.
All this did not much affect Kiernan inside his tiny wagon. He sat on cushions underneath layers of blankets while sipping some of the fine Pwamari brandy that he had picked up on his trip. It was the incompetence that annoyed him, and the delay. That fool Vottir, the anzi, the snow: they all conspired to risk making the trip unprofitable. At this rate, he might as well have taken one of the gates through the wall and accepted the loss from taxes both official and not.
Ah, but still the thought galled him. Empires were not built by following the rules. The biggest merchant houses made their own, and Kiernan planned to one day be counted amongst their ranks. He set down his small cup and once more opened his money chest to sort through it by the light of the hanging lantern. Look at it all! A very profitable trip, indeed. He reached to bury his hands in the gleaming pile of coins and gems, but a sound stopped him. Is Vottir banging on the wagon? That couldn’t be, for the noise only grew louder. It sounded like a giant rolling pin crashing down the mountain and was accompanied by a rocking motion that built up to a violent shaking.
“What in the world?” Kiernan asked. He hastily stowed the brandy inside the chest and then closed and locked it with practiced ease.
The lantern above his head swung back and forth so recklessly that it slipped its hook and crashed into one wall, extinguishing itself. In the dark, Kiernan lunged forward and wrapped his arms around the chest as best he could while the wagon bucked around him. The pounding and shaking reached a crescendo when suddenly some force slammed into the side of the wagon and sent it rolling end over end. Kiernan was spared the fright of the tumultuous ride by virtue of being immediately knocked unconscious by his own profits.
He awoke to confusion, cold, and the pale white light of the moon shining down through a large rift in the side of the wagon. What happened? he wondered as he extricated himself from the blankets and other goods under which he was buried. He winced at the pain in his head but smiled when he saw the money chest had remained in the wagon and intact. The next order of business was to check on the rest of the caravan.
Kiernan stepped outside and circled the wagon, but found nothing in sight except for trees and a thick blanket of white snow. Of Vottir, the anzi, and the other goods-laden wagons there was no sign. It was as if they had been erased from the world.
Avalanche, Kiernan realized. The trip was a waste, all his goods buried under the snow along with that fool caravan master. Safe route, Vottir had claimed. The weather should stay clear, he had promised. He paid for his mistake, but where does that leave me? Kiernan sighed. I suppose I’ll worry about that if I survive the night in this cold.
He started to rearrange the blankets inside the wagon to serve as a bed, but stopped when he heard a distant noise, a sort of rhythmic pounding that raised the fear of another earthquake. This was slower, though, plodding, methodical. He leaned out of the wagon and looked for its source. Through the distant trees, he saw a great green beast stomping its way toward him. Kiernan’s heart thudded in his chest and he felt ice seep into his veins.
A few seconds later, he was out of the wagon with his money chest in tow, tromping through the snow and away from the beast. When he was about a hundred feet away, he heard a roar from behind and whipped his head around. The great beast sniffed around the remains of the wagon and reared onto its hind legs. It towered above the wagon, which it reduced to kindling with one swipe of its mighty claws. Then it turned its gaze on Kiernan and roared again.
Kiernan stumbled forward through the thick snow, his only instinct to flee that horrible sight. He might have made better speed without his money, but in life as in business, some things are non-negotiable. The chest would stay with him until the end, damn the consequences.
Step, sink, lean, drag. Step, sink, lean, drag. Over and over until he saw the light.
Before he reached the torches, he heard voices raised in song. He followed the cheerful tune past a collection of ramshackle buildings and into a torch-lit clearing. There he found the singers, adults and children, holding hands in a circle around a tall, snow-covered tree. They looked a ragged bunch, not dressed warmly enough to be outside at night in the middle of a storm.
He broke into their circle and cried out. “Beware! Beware! A great beast approaches!”
He expected panic, screams, people running to hide, but no one seemed worried about his dire warning. They looked at him with concern in their eyes, and pity. One of the villagers approached him, a tall woman with wispy blonde hair coming loose from her woolen cap. He flinched when she put out a hand to his face, but she merely touched his brow with the back of her hand.
“Good sir, you are feverish, and frozen half to death,” she said. “Please, come into our hall, warm yourself by our fire, and share our supper. You have arrived at the perfect time, for our feast is about to begin.”
A fire and a feast sounded good. “But what about the monster, a vicious bear,” he said, his voice trailing off when his words brought a smile to the woman’s face.
“You’re safe here,” she said, taking him by his free hand. “Come, let me show you inside. My name is Wazhania.”
He let her lead him along, and dragged his treasure in his wake.
Inside the village’s longhouse, Kiernan sat before the fire, warm and dry in borrowed, threadbare clothing. The rest of the villagers had followed him in and were preparing for the feast. Wazhania sat next to him and he shared with her the story of how he found her village.
“It is good that Zhumupuru chased you here,” she said. “Else you surely would have perished in the snow.”
“Zhumupuru? That drunken bear? If only. I would have invited him into the wagon and shared a drink. No, this was a bear of a different sort. Teeth as long as my arm and claws the size of swords!”
“And yet this great beast never caught you, even with you dragging that?”
Kiernan’s hand settled protectively on the top of the chest, which had never left his side.
“It is odd, when you put it that way,” he said. And the bear’s fur had been green. But no, that beast and the slovenly bear could not be one and the same, even if Kiernan accepted the thought of a god taking an interest in him. “Never mind. I am safe and, thanks to you, warm. Nama vone.”
“You are welcome. Now will you join us at our table?”
Kiernan was glad to do so, for his last meal had been breakfast on the trail, but when Wazhania led him to the “feast,” he balked. There had to be fifty people seated around the long, wooden table, but a quick glance over the serving plates showed as much food as he alone might have for dinner. At that, it was mostly tubers and nuts, with some vegetables and salted pork. It wasn’t that he would turn his nose up at the simple fare, but it felt wrong to take even one portion of the meager dinner from the villagers. He turned back to where his chest lay by the fire—within view, always within view—and thought, I shall pay for my portion. That’s only right. Surely there’s a copper or two in there. That should cover it.
Wazhania followed his gaze and in a gentle voice with no hint of mockery said, “We don’t want your money. Please, sit.”
He did so and, despite his misgivings and the small portions, he was glad. The people were rural mountain folk, poor by the standards of the capital but happy in their lives. And though they didn’t have much, they shared it freely and with joy. When he whispered to Wazhania his concerns about taking food out of their mouths, she whispered back, “Please stop worrying. Zhumupuru will provide on this of all nights.”
Her faith in the bear seemed ridiculous to Kiernan. Zhumupuru was too lazy to take notice of these poor villagers, and even if he did, what could he do for them? He certainly hadn’t put enough food on their table. Were he present, he’d be more likely to gobble up their feast rather than add to it. And he wasn’t doing anything for the boy with the wet cough who sat a couple of seats down from Kiernan. The poor thing sounded in desperate need of medicine.
Zhumupuru will provide? Kiernan didn’t know about that, but he tried his best to enjoy himself so as not to offend his hosts. As the meal progressed, he relaxed and found himself looking back at his chest less and less often, until after one last look, he asked, “Do you have any small cups?”
He held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart and added, “I’m not being miserly. This stuff’s got a real kick.”
This elicited grins and a search for proper cups. When he returned to the table with the bottle of fine brandy, a handful of children’s toy cups were waiting for him. He poured and refilled, poured and refilled. Even the children got a sip or two, to ensure they’d stay warm for the rest of the evening. Onri, the boy with the cough, said it made him feel better than he had in ages, which made Kiernan beam. When everyone had sampled some, the glass bottle was empty. Oh well, Kiernan thought. It’s a miracle it survived the avalanche in the first place. He grinned and returned the empty bottle to the chest. Perhaps I can refill it with some swill and pawn it off.
On his way back to his seat, he saw something that gripped his heart in a cold, hard vise. Standing in the doorway was the beast that had been chasing him, all emerald fur and gnashing teeth and fiery eyes. It stepped into the room and he saw that it was no such thing, just someone in a Zhumupuru costume carrying a burlap sack over their shoulder. No more Pwamari brandy for me, ever, Kiernan decided. It gives me visions.
Wazhania stood up and announced, “Children! Look who’s here to hand out presents!”
The children swarmed around the costumed figure, jumping and squealing and reaching out their hands. Each received a tiny package wrapped in a lacy red bow. A rugged, bearded man followed the costumed figure into the room, and he too carried a sack. The people were even more excited to see him than the bear, and with good reason. Rather than more toys, he pulled a rabbit out of his sack and there were more to follow.
“I’m sorry it took so long. Am I too late for the feast?” he said.
A rousing cheer told him he was not. While the rabbits were dressed and cooked, the children played with their toys and Kiernan spoke with Wazhania.
“What is this celebration?” he asked
“The Midwinter feast, when Zhumupuru visits to share his blessings with those less fortunate. His generosity and compassion keep us warm throughout the cold winter.”
“That doesn’t sound like the silly green bear I know.”
Wazhania grinned. “You only know the Zhumupuru of summer, of Indulgence Day. We keep to the old ways up here.”
Kiernan shuddered. If the Visionaries knew of this, they would not be pleased. He said as much to Wazhania, who laughed.
“We don’t get many visitors, so I’m not worried. But tell me of life in the capital. Is the va Naza Scion still giving old Koruval a headache?”
Wazhania surprised Kiernan with the amount of capital gossip she knew, but she explained that she picked up stories here and there when she traded with the outside world. Kiernan brought her up to date on life in Tamapa’o, and by the time they were through, the rabbits were ready and the feast resumed. Everyone took their seats at the table and this time the feast was more substantial, although even several rabbits spread amongst all the villagers did not amount to what Kiernan would consider a hearty meal. Everyone seemed happy nonetheless, and the eating and talking and laughing and sharing of stories lasted late into the night. When the party finally ended, Wazhania gave Kiernan a sleeping roll and invited him to bed down by the fire. He accepted the bedding gratefully and was asleep within minutes, lying on his side, curled around his earnings.
He awoke the next morning to find his belongings in place, his old clothes piled neatly by his side, and a plate of nuts and berries next to a pitcher of cold water on the table. No one else remained in the hall, so he dressed and ate in solitude. Afterward, he dragged his chest outside and looked for the villagers. The great tree still stood in the middle of the village center, but he saw no people.
“What trickery is this?” he asked aloud.
“No trickery,” came Wazhania’s voice.
Kiernan turned and saw Wazhania leaning against the outside wall of the longhouse.
“Everyone’s about their business,” she said. “One night of feasting in exchange for a year of hard work. That is our life. We all have a job to do.”
“Even Onri?” Kiernan asked, horrified that the infirm little child would be put to work in the cold and snow.
“He stays in bed, of course. But no one can be spared to watch over him during the day.”
“You leave him alone? He needs care.”
“That’s mountain life. City folk wouldn’t understand. Speaking of, it’s about time we got you back to civilization. I can take you as far as the farm lands to the south if you’d like. From there, I’m sure you can find your own way.”
Kiernan narrowed his eyes. Here it was. They’d buttered him up last night and not stolen his money outright, but there was more than one way to rob someone.
“What’s your fee for this service?” he asked, expecting to lose at least half of his remaining hoard if he wanted to get back to the capital safely.
Wazhania made a face. “Keep your money, Kiernan. Has Zhumupuru not imparted any wisdom to you after last night?”
“I don’t understand,” Kiernan said.
“No, I don’t reckon you do,” she said, walking past him. “Come on, it’s a long walk. Best get started.”
True to her word, Wazhania led Kiernan down the mountain, breaking trail for him through the snow and taking paths known only to the mountain folk. By the time evening was falling, they had reached the foothills and left the snowline behind. Kiernan’s arms ached with the heavy load of his money chest, his heart ached with the thought of Onri sick in bed, and his head ached from the battle taking place in his own mind.
He had never known people as simple and honest as the villagers. They wouldn’t last a moment in the capital, that hotbed of politics and greed. It was full of conniving people who would smile to your face while digging a knife into your back. People like Kiernan, if he was honest. The villagers had shown him compassion without asking anything in return. They worked hard to survive but had generously shared the fruits of their labor. And what had he done for them in return? Shared some brandy.
I owe them nothing, he argued with himself. Wazhania could have struck a costly bargain but she chose to give freely instead. Any merchant would be a fool to turn down such a deal.
“This is as far as I’ll go,” Wazhania said.
Kiernan, lost in thought, was surprised to see that they had reached the base of the hills. A short distance away, lights glowed from inside a farm house.
“I know the folks who live there,” Wazhania continued. “Done some trading with them. Tell them I sent you and they’ll put you up for the night and get you on your way tomorrow.”
“Thank you. I can’t thank you enough. Without you, I’d be dead.”
“Thank Zhumupuru. If anyone saved you, it was him. Good luck, Kiernan.”
Without another word, she turned and started the trip back.
Zhumupuru had saved him, Kiernan was willing to admit. Whether he had sent the vision that chased Kiernan to the village or it had been his hand guiding the villagers’ kindness, the great green bear had most certainly insinuated himself into Kiernan’s business. But to what end? And which Zhumupuru was it? The drunken bear who promised prosperity to merchants like Kiernan, or the jovial figure who handed out presents to the poor on the longest of winter nights?
Kiernan looked from the farmhouse to Wazhania’s retreating back. His money chest weighed heavily on him after bringing it all this way.
Damn you, bear.
“Wazhania!” Kiernan called out. “Wait!”
Days later, Kiernan was back in Tamapa’o and on his way to his small storefront, a wrapped bundle in his arms. Once through the door he confronted the pale-green copper statue of Zhumupuru that rested on the counter. Its verdigris was a sign of years of successful business dealings. A lie, of course. Kiernan had paid dearly for a statue aged to this color. Appearance meant everything in the world of business.
He set his bundle down on the counter, lifted the statue and made his way through the store to the alley that ran behind it. There, he held it above a communal rubbish bin and said, “You’ve brought this on yourself. I hope you’re happy.”
With a sigh, he let go the false symbol of his prosperity. It landed in a pile of refuse and stared up at him with its idiotic grin, perfectly content in its new home. Back inside the shop Kiernan unwrapped the item he had purchased with the last of the coins he had kept for himself. He inspected the shiny, yellow-orange surface of the new Zhumupuru statue before setting it in the old one’s place. Perhaps it was a trick of the light or some variation in the production, but this bear’s smile seemed less drunken and more knowing.
“We’ll try it your way this time,” he said. “Who knows, maybe it’ll be good for business.”