THE BOOK OF THE FALSE KING
THE WAIL OF THE REFUGEES
The sun up above was burning from a cloudless sky for a full twenty hours a day. Upon this day it lit up the many abandoned villages with the ramshackle huts and farms, all in complete desolation. The soil underneath it was cracking and slowly crumbling away on a gentle wind. Such were the days of the never-ending summer. Thence all the fields were dried up and lay, unused and barren, as far as the eye could see. During that summer the Dreary Land, as it had come to be called, had spread and swallowed up yet new pieces of land to be included in its emptiness. And such was the way in which it came about that hundreds of thousands of peaceful farmers lost their livelihood and left their homes. These were The Refugees of Summer.
It thus came to pass that the long trading routes through the Dreary Land became crowded with the fleeing refugees, never had they seen so many travellers in any one decade as they did then. One family after the other came toiling down those routes, burdened with as many of their belongings as they could carry, or as the less poor families’ mules or wagons could hold, and all as one did they trample their way northward, making up a huge caravan, stretching several hundred leagues.
Most of them did not wish to leave The Southern Lands entirely; those were quickly separated from the rest as they left the route to seek out some of the bigger towns where they might turn their luck. But there were almost as many who were ready to give up those lands as a hopelessly lost case. These were the ones that kept on going towards The Great Kingdoms of the North.
Ailen patted his mule on the neck while trudging along beside it, his hand coming back all wet with the animal’s sweat. ‘You poor thing, having to pull this overloaded cart of ours, and in this damned heat,’ he said to it gently, encouragingly, all the while leading it on along the long and dusty route. He had at that point lost all sense of how many leagues they had laid behind them, and he had no clue as to how many lay yet before them. All he could see were vast and barren expanses in every direction with the great caravan of refugees making a long line right across the whole. The land has forsaken us all, he thought yet again, it is turning into a regular cook pot and if we do not get out of here soon enough, I’m afraid we will all suffer being burnt alive. ‘We will be out soon enough, surely, surely,’ he spoke aloud with all the confidence he could muster.
He quickly regained his smile. He did not let anything get in the way of his merry mood for too long at a time; he kept exclaiming ‘How exciting it is to be on the road! Just look about at all these strange people, all moving in the same direction!’ And he beamed and smiled at everyone around him, and even as people forgot his face the moment they looked away they felt their moods rise a little, thus were the effects of his bottomless cheerfulness.
‘Are you talking to the animal again now?’ It was his wife’s voice coming from behind, as she walked up to him. His mood did sink a little at that. ‘Having one of those clever “conversations” with him again? I swear this heat is going to your head.’
‘Not at all, dear. But I have got to encourage the poor fellow, keep him calm and abiding, you know? Besides, it’s so damned dull to just walk down this godforsaken route day after day. A man needs some diversions, and you, now, are not exactly willing these nights, damn you woman!’
‘Oh, away with you, you big oaf! Go do some of your useless chattering with some of the other simpletons, you make a great company. I will take care of the animal.’
‘Unbelievable that you still cannot stomach my presence, you ungrateful...!’ Ailen sent his wife a sour look before he turned and walked away, gritting his teeth. He had been married to her for at least two decades now, and yet she still held herself above him, as if she were some fine damsel and he a mere no one, who had tricked her father into giving him her hand. It is not as if she was ever one to hold a man’s eye. Ha! Her father only promised her to me because no one else would have her. And she had never forgiven her father for that. She had hated Ailen with a passion so fierce it had taken him five years after their marriage to convince her to let him bed her. Yet through all those years of torture, he had never taken another woman. Any other sane man damn well would have! But he was not that man, simpleton though he may be, he still held himself above that, mostly because he wanted to rise to her level, he admitted, knowing that he never would if he squandered away what little honour he did have. Damn her, he thought before pushing those thoughts away.
Even the sourness of his wife could not keep his mood down. They were like water and butterfly, he always thought. Her voice was like a fountain of water and each time she used it his fragile butterfly wings got wet, making him unable to fly. But the wings were so thin that they quickly dried off again under the beaming rays of the sun and so it was hardly any time at all before he could fly on again, basking his wings gleefully.
He spotted the back of an unfamiliar man ahead of him and decided to find out what kind of a fellow he was. He put on his heartiest smile as he trotted forward and waved to the stranger. ‘Hello you there, stranger! Who might you turn out to be? I have not seen your face before.’ He shouted as the man turned his gaze on him.
The stranger slowed his pace to allow Ailen to catch up to him. ‘My name is Bourn. I come from the big town of Dryden.’ He informed as he shook Ailen’s hand. ‘The kings are a’fighting over that place like carrions over a corpse. I decided I might as well a’take the chance and leave now along with all these refugees from down south.’
‘We’ve passed Dryden already then, have we? I had not known. Why, then we are further along than I’d dare believe. Your words make me glad, friend.’
‘Oh, think none of it, I am a’telling but the truth what is at hand. But do a’tell where you are from? You sound like you’ve been long on the road?’
Ailen felt an immense amount of relief. We really will be out soon enough then, he thought before answering. ‘Long? Oh yes, the very longest of all! My home lay in the shadow of the Dismal Mountains; I am come all the wearisome way from the village of Oaksborough.’
‘The Dismal Mountains you’re a’saying? That is an awfully long way south of here, good god in the earth! And they a’say it’s a dreadful place, what with those terrible mountains.’
‘My people have always prided themselves on being a sturdy lot. We do not fear those who dwell in the mountains. They come down but seldom and they do not care to meddle with the Dreary Land, they only want to trade or to see the world that lies beyond their own.’
‘Did you ever a’see one of these mountain people? How do they look? And how is their ways? Do a’tell, do a’tell!’
‘I have seen them alright. They’re just men like us, really. But their skin is white and they are taller than most of our people, very much like the northerners, so they say, though I’ve never seen one of those. They say it’s because they live in the Perpetual Winter where everything is always covered in snow, why, they even build their houses of ice, so they say, and they dress in white to blend in with their surroundings when they go hunting. And they say that all their animals up there are white as well, so the hunting is really a game where the ones who blend in better survives to feast on the others. They say it’s very often that men don’t return from the hunting.’
‘Marvellous! Just marvellous!’ exclaimed Bourn, who had been completely engulfed in Ailen’s words. Ailen sensed the man’s genuine interest and went on to talk about other wonders of that strange folk, and he got so caught up in the conversation that he completely forgot about his wife until she came for him herself, ending the conversation with hard words and a furious glare in his direction. Damned woman.
Nevertheless he smiled at Bourn. ‘Why, this is my lovely wife, Mercia. She is always so charming and delicate, as you see. The flower of my life, though she doesn’t always return the sentiment. I married over my standing, see, reached an agreement with the dear girl’s father... she still does not think me worthy, can you imagine? But nay, I never did anything but good on her.’ He laughed merrily, beyond all regret; she was his, willingly or not.
Her eyes narrowed at his merriment. He looked at her then, and he saw two people in her, as he always did. The one was his spouse, the fat ugly woman with the perpetually angry face, whose wrinkles were getting deeper by the day, and whose skin hang about her sagging even more than her breasts did. He did not much care about that woman, the other one however... She was the one he had fallen for, the highborn woman, whose head was always ever so slightly raised in pride, whose eyes were a deep almost reddish brown, whose thick hair was black as night and as long as to reach down below her navel. She had paler skin than anyone he knew, it was the colour of golden sand during sunset, her mother having been a Northerner. This was the woman he always made himself see, the woman she only truly became on the rare occasions she let him share her bed. That one is my flower, and the mother of my children, he always thought, the other one is merely my bookkeeper who controls my money and takes care of my house.
‘You will excuse me, surely, that I not get in trouble with my woman? We will have plenty of time to talk later if we were to meet again.’
‘Yes, to be sure! We will a’meet again to be sure. Now a’fare you well. And good sentiments to the wife.’
‘Oh, spare yourself!’ Cried Mercia to the stranger, voice ripe with indignation.
‘Never mind her. Never mind her at all, friend. Fare you well, fare you well.’ Added Ailen hurriedly and flashed another smile before gripping his wife by the arm, ‘come you now my dear, the children will be waiting.’ He took her by the arm and pulled her along like a stubborn mule, all the while chattering about this new acquaintance of his. ‘They a’seem to a’have a strange manner of a’speaking them Dryden folk.’ He mused aloud, trying to imitate the stuttering dry voice of Bourn.
‘Oh shut up, you sound ridiculous.’ Mercia wrinkled her perfect little nose in her fat face at him. He just smiled in reply. Damn me, but I love that nose – and the face; between all the puffed up fatness it’s not that ugly.
Ailen knew full well that no one would be casting their eyes after him either. He was a stout middle-aged man, a perfect commoner with no special features that made him stand out, his height and size was average, his shoulder length hair was the same dark brown colour most other southerners shared. His eyes were a nondescript greyish brown, placed evenly in a bearded face. In short, he was not a man to be noticed. If he had to be fairly honest, that was probably the main reason he had never taken another woman. There had been times... Times when he had wanted more of one of the village women than a mere exchange of words, but there had always been other men, younger and more handsome. He did not wish to offend his wife’s dignity in any way, nothing could be further from his mind, mind you! But he was a man, and just because he was married it did not mean that he was blind to all other women, or that he did not keep craving what his wife would not give him. Oh, but what is there to do?
He possessed only one skill, and having taken up his father’s trade as the village blacksmith when he was still short of being a man grown he had done little else in his life, and yet even at this trade he was merely average, just able to serve the needs of his little village. He was not an intelligent man, and even less a decisive one, it was only when all the rest of the villagers had departed and he found himself without work that he thought to start his own march north. He knew this and it suited him well. Being an ordinary man grants you the privacy to lead a secret and untroubled life, no one will notice you or care, so long as you don’t go breaking any laws you can be free, and free men may yet live a happy life, lad. That is what his old man used to tell him before his untimely death. Mercia, naturally, did not share that sentiment.
They found their cart and the dispirited mule again along with the whole herd of their children, every last one of them as unattractive as their parents, and better off for it in Ailen’s view.
‘Father! Father! Tell us about the Great Kingdoms!’ cried the youngest of his daughters, an ever curious girl of seven. ‘Oh, will you not-will you not? Pleaase! You promised you would!’
‘Be easy, Ebba, I made you a promise and I intend to keep it. Just calm down, okay? And sit down, we are making camp here for the night,’ answered Ailen. He smiled as not only Ebba but also the rest of the lot came around and sat down on their woollen cloths in the sun heated sand. ‘Are you ready?’ he asked as he had sat himself down before them. They all impatiently exclaimed that they were.
‘Well, you see, The Great Kingdoms are marvellous green lands where noble kings rule and the people are prosperous. There is said to be plenty of wealth. In the cities the streets are paved and the houses are made of solid stone! Yes, everything is better there, this Dreary Land is so very primitive and dull in comparison. In the cities of the kings there are big castles where princes and princesses live, and everything is made of gold. Yes, that is true! And the people themselves, they are fair and beautiful, and the clothes they wear is...’ He could go on and on about matters like foreign people, and his children were a grateful audience. He was no great storyteller but they swallowed his every word eagerly enough.
He watched the five children as they sat in the sand before him, faces distorted into wondrous grimaces as they tried to imagine the lands of the north. Ranging in age from seven to fourteen they were the greatest joy in his life and the ones who made him keep up his spirits on the long walk north. He often felt like a god in their presence, I did create them after all, he always thought remembering the nights each of them had been conceived. They look up to me, the poor babies, almost as if I were their god. They are only starting to understand what a big and hazardous place the world is, well the elder ones are, and they know that the only ones willing to bend over backwards to see them safe are their parents. He smiled at them, and continued to tell them of the glorious life they would come to lead once they reached the great kingdoms while the sun finally lowered itself and settled on the horizon. Then he stopped and went to get the warm clothes in the wagon, for when the hours of the dark night came, so did also the cold.
Like Ailen and his family, like Bourn the lonely Drydener and like all those thousands of the nameless refugees that shared the route with them that day, so did yet more hundreds of thousands of deprived human beings take to the road, not counting all those who had already reached their destinations. They called it The Long Walk of Endurance.
The massive migration was the mark of that year for the Northern Kingdoms, for these were the lands now forced to hold the refugees. Across the boundaries to the Western Kingdom of Ermengarth and the Eastern Ardland alike they went, all the southern people. They swarmed over in their uncountable masses, dark skinned brown haired southerners of the Dreary Land and they mixed themselves among the light haired fair skinned people of the north. But not only themselves did they bring, they also brought all their proud traditions and differing dialects, for they were not a people to be subservient. But that was but one thing – with them came also another and far more dangerous thing; their religion, the belief in The One True God, which the northerners had always despised vehemently.