Thursday, June 24, 2010

The edge of the world, part I


Dandilion came down the steps of the inn carefully, carrying two tankards dripping with froth.
    Cursing under his breath he squeezed through a group of curious children and crossed the yard at a diagonal, avoiding the cowpats.
    A number of villagers had already gathered round the table in the courtyard where the witcher was talking to the alderman. The poet set the tankards down and found a seat. He realised straight away that the conversation hadn't advanced a jot during his short absence.
    'I'm a witcher, sir,' Geralt repeated for the umpteenth time, wiping beer froth from his lips. 'I don't sell anything. I don't go around enlisting men for the army and I don't know how to treat glanders. I'm a witcher.'
    'It's a profession,' explained Dandilion yet again. 'A witcher, do you understand? He kills strigas and spectres. He exterminates all sorts of vermin. Professionally, for money. Do you get it, alderman?'
    'Aha!' The alderman's brow, deeply furrowed in thought, grew smoother. 'A witcher! You
should have said so right away!'
    'Exactly,' agreed Geralt. 'So now I'll ask you: is there any work to be found around here for me?'
    'Aaaa.' The alderman quite visibly started to think again. 'Work? Maybe those . . . Well . . . werethings? You're asking are there any werethings hereabouts?'
    The witcher smiled and nodded, rubbing an itching eyelid with his knuckles.
    'That there are,' the alderman concluded after a fair while.
    'Only look ye yonder, see ye those mountains? There's elves live there, that there is their kingdom. Their palaces, hear ye, are all of pure gold. Oh aye, sir! Elves, I tell ye. 'Tis awful. He who yonder goes, never returns.'
    'I thought so,' said Geralt coldly. 'Which is precisely why I don't intend going there.'
    Dandilion chuckled impudently.
    The alderman pondered a long while, just as Geralt had expected.
    'Aha,' he said at last. 'Well, aye. But there be other werethings here too. From the land of elves they come, to be sure. Oh, sir, there be many, many. 'Tis hard to count them all. But the worst, that be the Bane, am I right, my good men?'
    The 'good men' came to life and besieged the table from all sides.
    'Bane!' said one. 'Aye, aye, 'tis true what the alderman says. A pale virgin, she walks the cottages at daybreak, and the children, they die!'
    'And imps,' added another, a soldier from the watchtower. 'They tangle up the horses' manes in the stables!'
    'And bats! There be bats here!'
    'And myriapodans! You come up all in spots because of them!'
    The next few minutes passed in a recital of the monsters which plagued the local peasants with their dishonourable doings, or their simple existence. Geralt and Dandilion learnt of misguids and mamunes, which prevent an honest peasant from finding his way home in a drunken stupour, of the flying drake which drinks milk from cows, of the head on spider's legs which runs around in the forest, of hobolds which wear red hats and about a dangerous pike which tears linen from women's hands as they wash it - and just you wait and it'll be at the women themselves. They weren't spared hearing that old Nan the Hag flies on a broom at night and performs abortions in the day, that the miller tampers with the flour by mixing it with powdered acorns and that a certain Duda believed the royal steward to be a thief and scoundrel.
    Geralt listened to all this calmly, nodding with feigned interest, and asked a few questions about the roads and layout of the land, after which he rose and nodded to Dandilion.
    'Well, take care, my good people,' he said. 'I'll be back soon, then we'll see what can be done.'
    They rode away in silence alongside the cottages and fences, accompanied by yapping dogs
and screaming children.
    'Geralt,' said Dandilion, standing in the stirrups to pick a fine apple from a branch which stretched over the orchard fence, 'all the way you've been complaining about it being harder and harder to find work. Yet from what I just heard, it looks as if you could work here without break until winter. You'd make a penny or two, and I'd have some beautiful subjects for my ballads. So explain why we're riding on.'
    'I wouldn't make a penny, Dandilion.'
    'Because there wasn't a word of truth in what they said.'
    'I beg your pardon?'
    'None of the creatures they mentioned exist.'
    'You're joking!' Dandilion spat out a pip and threw the apple core at a patched mongrel. 'No, it's impossible. I was watching them carefully, and I know people. They weren't lying.'
    'No,' the witcher agreed. 'They weren't lying. They firmly believed it all. Which doesn't change the facts.'
    The poet was silent for a while.
    'None of those monsters . . . None? It can't be. Something of what they listed must be here. At least one! Admit it.'
    'All right. I admit it. One does exist for sure.'
    'Ha! What?'
    'A bat.'
    They rode out beyond the last fences, on to a highway between beds yellow with oilseed and cornfields rolling in the wind. Loaded carts travelled past them in the opposite direction. The bard pulled his leg over the saddle-bow, rested his lute on his knee and strummed nostalgic tunes, waving from time to time at the giggling, scantily clad girls wandering along the sides of the road carrying rakes on their robust shoulders.
    'Geralt,' he said suddenly, 'but monsters do exist. Maybe not as many as before, maybe they don't lurk behind every tree in the forest, but they are there. They exist. So how do you account for people inventing ones, then? What's more, believing in what they invent? Eh, famous witcher? Haven't you wondered why?'
    'I have, famous poet. And I know why.'
    'I'm curious.'
    'People,' Geralt turned his head, 'like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live.'
    'I'll remember that,' said Dandilion, after a moment's silence. 'I'll find some rhymes and compose a ballad about it.'
    'Do. But don't expect a great applause.'
    They rode slowly but lost the last cottages of the hamlet from sight. Soon they had climbed the row of forested hills.
    'Ha.' Dandilion halted his horse and looked around. 'Look, Geralt. Isn't it beautiful here? Idyllic, damn it. A feast for the eyes!'
    The land sloped gently down to a mosaic of flat, even fields picked out in variously coloured crops. In the middle, round and regular like a leaf of clover, sparkled the deep waters of three lakes surrounded by dark strips of alder thickets. The horizon was traced by a misty blue line of mountains rising above the black, shapeless stretch of forest.
    'We're riding on, Dandilion.'
    The road led straight towards the lakes alongside dykes and ponds hidden by alder trees and filled with quacking mallards, garganeys, herons and grebes. The richness of bird life was surprising alongside the signs of human activity — the dykes were well maintained and covered with fascines, while the sluice gates had been reinforced with stones and beams. The outlet boxes, which were not in the least rotten, trickled merrily with water.
    Canoes and jetties were visible in the reeds by the lakes and bars of set nets and fish-pots
were poking out of the deep waters.
    Dandilion suddenly looked around.
    'Someone's following us,' he said, excited. 'In a cart!'
    'Incredible,' scoffed the witcher without looking around. 'In a cart? And I thought that the locals rode on bats.'
    'Do you know what?' growled the troubadour. 'The closer we get to the edge of the world, the sharper your wit. I dread to think what it will come to!'
    They weren't riding fast, and the empty cart, drawn by two piebald horses, quickly caught up with them.
    'Woooooaaaaahhhh!' The driver brought the horses to a halt just behind them. He was wearing a sheepskin over his bare skin and his hair reached down to his brows. 'The gods be praised, noble sirs!'
    'We, too,' replied Dandilion, familiar with the custom, 'praise them.'
    'If we want to,' murmured the witcher.
    'I call myself Nettly,' announced the carter. 'I was watching ye speak to the alderman at Upper Posada. I know ye tae be a witcher.'
    Geralt let go of the reins and let his mare snort at the roadside nettles.
    'I did hear,' Nettly continued, 'the alderman prattle ye stories. I marked your expression and 'twas nae strange to me. In a long time now I've nae heard such balderdash and lies.'
    Dandilion laughed.
    Geralt was looking at the peasant attentively, silently.
    Nettly cleared his throat. 'Care ye nae to be hired for real, proper work, sir?' he asked. 'There'd be something I have for ye.'
    'And what is that?'
    Nettly didn't lower his eyes. 'It be nae good to speak of business on the road. Let us drive on to my home, to Lower Posada. There we'll speak. Anyways, 'tis that way ye be heading.'
    'Why are you so sure?'
    'As 'cos ye have nae other way here, and yer horses' noses be turned in that direction, not their butts.'
    Dandilion laughed again. 'What do you say to that, Geralt?'
    'Nothing,' said the witcher. 'It's no good to talk on the road. On our way then, honourable Nettly.'
    'Tie ye the horses to the frame, and sit yerselves down in the cart,' the peasant proposed. 'It be more comfortable for ye. Why rack yer arses on the saddle?'
    'Too true.'
    They climbed onto the cart. The witcher stretched out comfortably on the straw. Dandilion, evidently afraid of getting his elegant green jerkin dirty, sat on the plank. Nettly clucked his tongue at the horses and the vehicle clattered along the beam-reinforced dyke.
They crossed a bridge over a canal overgrown with water-lilies and duckweed, and passed a
strip of cut meadows. Cultivated fields stretched as far as the eye could see.
    'It's hard to believe that this should be the edge of the world, the edge of civilisation,' said
Dandilion. 'Just look, Geralt. Rye like gold, and a mounted peasant could hide in that corn. Or
that oilseed, look, how enormous.'
    'You know about agriculture?'
    'We poets have to know about everything,' said Dandilion haughtily. 'Otherwise we'd compromise our work. One has to learn, my dear fellow, learn. The fate of the world depends
on agriculture, so it's good to know about it. Agriculture feeds, clothes, protects from the cold, provides entertainment and supports art.'
    'You've exaggerated a bit with the entertainment and art.'
    'And booze, what's that made of?'
    'I get it.'
    'Not very much, you don't. Learn. Look at those purple flowers. They're lupins.'
    'They's be vetch, to be true,' interrupted Nettly. 'Have ye nae seen lupins, or what? But ye
have hit exact with one thing, sir. Everything seeds mightily here, and grows as to make the
heart sing. That be why 'tis called the Valley of Flowers. That be why our forefathers settled
here, first ridding the land of the elves.'
    'The Valley of Flowers, that's Dol Blathanna,' Dandilion nudged the witcher, who was stretched out on the straw, with his elbow. 'You paying attention? The elves have gone but their name remains. Lack of imagination. And how do you get on with the elves here, dear host? You've got them in the mountains across the path, after all.'
    'We nae mix with each other. Each to his own.'
    'The best solution,' said the poet. 'Isn't that right, Geralt?'
    The witcher didn't reply.

[to be continued]

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