Journey To The Houndstooth Pt 1

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Part One

Ever since I was small I have longed to visit the Houndstooth Manor: that strange forlorn castle upon the Shatterrock cliffs that loomed above the scarlet woods.

It dangled there, upside down, jutting out of the rocky shield plate abovehead and visible for leagues around the Commonwealth. That ghostly stone brick outpost, crumbling and abandoned, had been so often present on the horizons of our journeys that we would use the Houndstooth as a landmark for navigation. I would inquire about it: who built it? Why was it there, and so on — the questions of a child trying to understand the world. No one I asked could answer me properly.

To speak the truth, everyone I was acquainted with considered the Houndstooth a mystery without merit of thought. There are many strange things in the woods, so let it be, pay it no mind. Carry on with more important things… for the Shatterrock mountain range was unreachable by any means. There was no fold that lead to the range for a hundred leagues! You would walk until the forest takes you — never to reach the Houndstooth, let alone the Shatterrocks.

Yet, there it stood. A testament to my curiosity given manifest, taunting me out of reach but never out of sight. I wanted to meet the intrepid scouts who traversed the Shatterrocks above, and the holy men who placed stone after stone on the foundations of the manor's proud towers, marking the accomplishment of conquering that esoteric and rarified land. Who were they, and why did they press on so deep into the wild lands beyond the Commonwealth?


Houndstooth Manor.

It was not until I left my birthplace of Silkreach and travelled to the rocky beaches of Bleakshore in search of joining the ranks of an exploration party that my innocence was shattered, and I learned the truth of the Houndstooth. I had been sat in the warm mess hall of the Stonewall company — a friendly and gruff collection of adventurers who had taken me in for fresh oysters and stout — and they told me their findings on the Houndstooth over ballads of their visits to the deep lands beyond. That it was completely alien of origin, likely not constructed by the hands of man. At least, not by anyone from the Commonwealth. What's more, it predated the settlements of our ancestors and, even more chilling, may have been erected by members of an unknown neighbouring nation.

It set my mind ablaze. I did not know if the chill that froze my spine was fear or exhilaration. All I knew was that my longing to see the castle of the Shatterrock was reinforced tenfold, my curiosity flourishing into a raving fascination to match the scale of the mystery.

That day I found my life's passion among kindred souls. That day I knew I would journey to the Houndstooth.

I insisted that the Stonewall company take me on as an apprentice, swearing the urban life found in Silkreach would, to me, be a slow death. That my heart swooned and was taken with wanderlust. That I travelled far from my family household and it was destiny or fate that led me to their lodge. Looking back on my ramblings I must have come off as starry-eyed and naively grandiose, for the company met me with raised eyebrows of amusement, chuckles, and grim disinterest.

Rather than the open arms I hoped for, I received a mop and bucket and was left to clean the lodge from the floorboards to the rafters. When I had scrubbed my hands raw and worked my legs to jelly, I was handed an axe and directed to a pile of wood. I chopped every piece until angry blisters covered my palms. When that was completed I returned to the mess hall and slept on a bench, using my overcoat as a headrest. In my stubborn youth I concluded that they simply would have to accept me should I linger for long enough. That stubbornness was met with yet more chores — a good heaping of them too. There was cooking and washing and repairing a variety of things; carrying supplies and tending to latrines. What I believed to be an initiation lasted many days and nights.

While some kept to themselves, a few of the members of the Stonewall company made my acquaintance and would go out of their way to get to know me. In time I met them all, the whole group of misfits.

The head of the company, Nicholas, was wideset, bearded, and had sharp-angled features and a strong brow. The others often looked to him for guidance, and he was confident and careful in his words. I learned he inherited the lodge from his late brother who had also been an explorer, lost to the depths of the monolith trees. I dared not ask more on that matter for a long, long time.

There was Enzo; he was tall and patchy and had a mind like clockwork — his memory encapsulating and frighteningly vivid. Also Igino; a half-man who stood no more than three feet tall. Igino was eccentric and scholarly — a dabbler of the magics of crystal and fire. I had asked them both one time if perhaps a large catapult could launch us to the Houndstooth, or if a ladder could be fastened to bridge the gap between the shield and the forest. They loved the madness of such an idea, and we spent much of the evening eating seared fish and designing fantastic and silly contraptions on scrolls with ink.

Christina was an ophidian, covered head to claw in fine maroon scales that wrapped around her solid frame. Despite the softness of her demeanour, she terrified me. Furniture seemed smaller when she sat in it, and whenever she stood nearby I would tremble like a hare.

One day she cornered me and said her father — not a lizard, but a man — had discovered her egg in the deepwoods, abandoned. He kept it on hot coals for a hundred days to give her life, raising her as his own. She told me with pride that both reptile and human blood flowed in her veins because of this. And while she told me, she stared fiercely to measure if I held prejudice towards her. I floundered out a satisfactory response that must have been awkward and harmless, for I remember her heartily laughing, and we were well met from that day onwards.

There was an orphan girl, Ophelia, who was a thin sad child that the Stonewall company took in after the slaughter of the Vanguard of Steel. I would often catch her staring at me from a safe distance — from the rafters, from under a table; she would perch in strange places — and she did not speak a word to me for many weeks. When she finally mustered up either the trust or courage to talk, she told me only one thing: that she knew I would come.

I came to learn that the gloomy reclusive one was Jacob. His sister was chosen for ascension, the loss still near his heart. I saw him spend time on the roof alone with his thoughts, staring up at the dim resting lanterns at night, unable to sleep. I would hear him sing and talk to them: as if his sister still had ears to listen despite entwining with the light of the saints. His grief was deep. I wished to offer him words of kindness but knew not how.

Lina was bubbly and talkative and often would rope me into helping her prepare meals for the company. Over the countless hours of chopping vegetables and boning fish I had come to know her life story in great detail; her home and business had gone up in flames quite literally a number of years back, burned in a kitchen fire. Left with few options, she moved to Bleakshore and was picked up by Nicholas to keep the lodge well-fed. I look back fondly on those days of cooking. Lina showed me ways to spice and prepare food in a way my father simply could not, and I learned what flavour was for the first time under her tutelage.

There were a number of times when I was left to watch the lodge while the Stonewall crew went on expeditions. I would keep out varmints and fish the lakeshore to keep the kitchen stocked, bringing my extra catches to market, trading them for small coins which I would hide under my cot. Ophelia would follow me to the lakeshore and be entertained by bugs and minnows. Her company was often silent, which I did not mind.

The people of Bleakshore were rugged, hardy, but friendly — similar to the farmers of the Silkreach terraces — and I got along well enough. I was young still, away from home, with no worldly experience to speak of. The days of chores at the lodge were hard. They shaped my character, rounded out my shoulders, and built callousness on my soft hands. The days alone were serene and peaceful, and I spent many of them daydreaming.

In time, however, I grew restless.

There was only so long I could tolerate being left at Bleakshore while the others would trek into the lands beyond. I was told every time I was not ready, that the road was too dangerous or that I was still too young. And I began to pressure Nicholas to bring me with them more and more frequently. Ophelia told me to cease asking. Perhaps she knew I was testing my luck, but she was my junior, and I was still restless. On one particular eve perhaps I irritated Nicholas, or perhaps he was simply ready to humble my nieve ardour. He had slammed the bottom of his flagon atop the table and commanded me to meet him in the yard, grabbing me by the backscruff of my shirt to lift me from my meal, nearly tossing me out of the lodge.

He met me there, threw a wooden sword at my feet, and did begin to beat the eagerness out of me. Knocked me to the ground and commanded me to stand and face him, again and again, before crashing down upon me with another savage blow. To the legs, to my arms, to knock the wind out of me, aside the head, until I could not stand again. He yelled at me, asking if I were to accept defeat so easily — if that was all I could muster. And I laid there, half dead, bruised and berated for some time before he threw his weapon down and returned to the lodge.

Nicholas left me laying in the yard that evening. He told the others to leave me be as well, for none came but Lina, who brought me water but nothing more. It was a long time until I limped back to the lodge and found my way to my cot, and I remember taking stock of my injuries and weeping. I remained there for a long time as well. I also remember, much later, Ophelia confiding to me that she had seen a vision of Nicholas killing me in the yard and tried to warn me to keep my fervour of the Houndstooth to myself. From that point onwards I knew to lend some trust to her visions.

When I finally mustered the strength to rejoin the company, I popped my head out of the cellar and limped into the mess hall to be cheerfully welcomed by Christina. She clapped me on the back (what pain!) and celebrated my scars of battle. She chortled in her strange lizard way and remarked that Nicholas did not go easy on me. Told me the first lesson was always the hardest, and she shoved a mug of bitters into my hands. The taste! It was awful, and It confused me to be coddled by such an imposing creature as her, but they checked me over and made sure I could walk and tied a rough sling for one of my shoulders. She said I was good enough to come to the lakeshore, and insisted I would be coming with her for the day.

The exact phrasing of Christina's words is lost to me — though I remember the lessons she taught me in the quiet. I'll paraphrase this time we had, for it was a wonderful moment of tranquillity after a cataclysmic tempest in my life. We sat for hours, watched the boats and listened to the water and the sounds of the forest. Life was all around us, and it was beautiful.

We fished and reeled in juicy glistening bass and grayling. Christina explained that everything was connected; we owe our life to the fish we kill. That lower forms of life, like the fish, were placed here for higher forms, like her and I — and that higher forms exist for one another. The farmer for the baker, and the baker for the mason; the mason for the priest, the priest for the farmers. That all higher forms need to find a place in this life, and she told me what role the Stonewall company played in the life of the town. And, how each member of the company played a role for each other.


Too far for Lanterns to shine.

I sat there, bruised and sore, letting the mist that clung to the surface of Lotus Lake caress me and Christina's words humble me. She told me, "Nicholas could have killed you in the yard." But he did not want to. "Outside the city there is darkness. In the woods, it is night forever, and there are shadows there who want to kill you. And they will." The common folk stay in the cities, fishing and farming and raising families. They are safe under the lanterns, in the holy light. They want to live! They have no reason to leave.

"Think about that. Where we tread is forbidden to us."

And that was the truth. That leaving the Commonwealth was not about foolish suicidal expeditions to the Houndstooth to quell a feverish curiosity. The Stonewalls, and indeed, anyone who leaves the safety of the lantern's light had a duty to survive. For one another — and for the very Commonwealth itself.

And I wept again softly, gentle tears, that welled up shyly and fell distinguishedly. But my desire was not slain. My curiosity was tempered with the first mote of wisdom I had ever heard in my life, and subdued by the beating I had received in the yard, but it was not dead yet. I did not curse Nicholas or the Stonewall company. But I knew that it would take more than quixotic nerve and wanderlust to convince anyone to brave the journey.

That day I remember viewing the world anew: I saw for the first time the intricate pattern of scales on the skin of a fish for its beauty, its complexity, and in a new light of understanding. The scales bent and weaved, allowing the fish to move as it needed without bunching up or cracking. Also, too, were they aerodynamic and sleek and glided through the water with natural grace. Surely they insulated the creature enough to keep it warm in the starkly cold lake. The fish could have grown fur, or flesh, perhaps bark or some form of exterior alien to my mind, but it did not. All things grew as they had to for the purpose they served in a godly way. And I saw that grace extend to all things for a fleeting moment: down to the bending of the reed of my fishing rod to serve the purpose of tension to my line — or the articulate nature of hands grasping at tools. To facilitate my own needs, so that I in turn could facilitate the needs of the world.

I came to understand that I had passed a trial of sorts, a hazing, and with that glimmer of a grander perspective in my mind, I knew it was a well-deserved one at that. My mind had been narrowly directed, I had been walking with blinders on each side of my thoughts and actions; like looking down a narrow tube and blocking all else out of sight. Blind to life itself. Blind to the Stonewalls, blind to the minutiae of each passing day, to things that would define who I was — not simply what I wanted.

And I knew then in the clarity of the still day what had to be done. As the baker was for the mason, I would be the pupil — and every member of the Stonewall company my teacher. And I set myself to the task of becoming a higher life form. No longer a burden: but a man.

We stayed until night began to creep across the Commonwealth. The holy lanterns slowly dimmed and hummed gentler, sleeping tones. Christina beckoned me to return to the lodge with her for supper. I was loathe to do so — terrified of coming face to face again with Nicholas after my beating.

Lina and Igino were first to welcome me back, and I, dejected, fully expected further chastising for all those times I pestered everyone to take me on a fool's errand to the end of the world. I was battered and sore and terrified to meet the gaze of any of the company — yet to my surprise was met not with disdain or pity. Instead, Lina gently patted my shoulders and tried to hug me, dodging around my bruises, and Igino congratulated me for surviving my first lesson.

There was thankfulness in my heart, and even though every movement ached (and much to Christina and Igino's warm bemusement) I went to work helping Lina prepare the meal with high spirits. That evening I requested Igino to teach me whatever he could about scribing, magic, and the wisdom of the ancient world he was so well versed in. And his little face lit up at my interest — a student! I would work hard, and I would learn, until a day I was of value to the company and ready to see the lands beyond.

Igino's agreeable disposition led to me sharing a study with both himself and Enzo, learning to read the common tongue first — and taking up the basics of writing as well. I would borrow scrolls from their study and hide away in any quiet well-lit nook I could find to pore over their contents for hours. I found encyclopedias of the flora and fauna of the Commonwealth, stories of the Deepwoods, histories of the age of crystal and more; and I devoured them all. In turn, I'd tell those stories to Ophelia before bed and at the lakeshore. In time she learned to track me down and join me so that I could read the scrolls aloud, just the two of us as the rest of the company went about their business.

Nicholas, stoic as he was, did not feel the need to share words between us on the matter. His disposition towards me softened — I was tolerated, the lesson learned, and no ill will between us ever festered. To the contrary, I knew he held me in esteem for returning and my efforts to be inaugurated into the company; not by him telling me for he was of few words, but in his own ways of showing respect.

Over these months I would often find myself returning to the water. I would cast a line into the lake and fish and contemplate the meaning of things when I had time. What my place was in life. Why a fish was a fish, and why I was not. Questions that my family would have scoffed at, stupid thoughts just like what the Houndstooth was. I assumed that my father, at no fault of his own, was simply nothing more than a terrace farmer dispositioned against philosophy. Perhaps all the people of Silkreach were common, plain, and unassuming — with no need or care about things outside the matters of sewing fields and reaping harvests.

The quirky band of misfits I had fallen into was different. And I hoped I was just different enough to fit in with them. Somewhere along the line, I realized that something had changed: that reaching the Houndstooth wasn't good enough anymore. I wanted to see it with the Stonewalls: together. I wanted that accomplishment to be not just my own, but my family's. That hope came true, for in time I found myself inducted into the Stonewalls — as a true member of the company.

It was a brazen ceremony, one involving a rite of passage in the form of a deep mug of spirits and a bonfire in the yard. We seared a monster of a fish over the flames and glazed it in sweet pepper, and I was charged to lift a heavy stone onto a totem post — the weight of it nearly crushed me, but the excited chanting of the company compelled me to overcome it in a cheerful display of gravitas and comradery. Even Jacob found it in them to smile and cheer.

And so it was that soon afterward I was given the opportunity to join the company on commission: my first endeavour beyond the safety of the lanterns. We were to set out to the inverted deserts of the salt-blasted Wastes. I would finally see how it felt to trespass on forbidden ground. Five of us were to leave on my maiden expedition.

Only four would return.

⋅☙ To be Continued ❧⋅

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