This post is a demonstration of the topics presented in:
You don’t need to review those topics to enjoy this work, though they do offer some insight into the motivations for this piece.
Nothing but violet. Though the blizzard masked the world in white, the entire world in unison faded to violet, and soon to black. The day almost killed him, but the night was sure to finish him off.
Ahdab saw his arms and his the reins of his kuk, Ellora, but the snow masked most of her body. Ahdab wore layers upon layers of fleece and covered his face with it, but the winds bit deep into his skin regardless. His blistering feet stung with each step, but he was grateful to have any feeling in them at all.
Ellora had already proven herself just making it this far. No horse could withstand these temperatures or climb these slopes. The others had called him a fool for choosing her rather than a horse. A kuk could never match half the pace of a horse nor carry its thick bones and short legs half the distance a horse could. However, only in the summer could a horse hope to cross the Kiterra Mountains, and even then, the steep cliffs and densely packed spruces kept a horse from traveling any faster than a kuk might have anyway.
Ellora tugged on her reins and led Ahdab up a hill. In this direction, a faint orange flickering ahead breathed new life into Ahdab and Ellora and drove them to sprint onward with strength neither knew they had. A campfire! But nobody tending to it. Where had everyone gone?
Ellora nudged her nose against a short metal spike planted firmly in the ground near the fire. Ahdab inspected it, finding it buried in the snow quite deep. Another one just like it poked from the snow just one foot’s distance away. Several more formed a trail, with the fire to lure in travelers and the spikes to guide them to the inn. A building crafted from the wood stood not ten steps from the fire, but without the spikes, Ahdab may never have found it.
Ahdab kicked at the door, his numb arms too weak to knock. He turned back to the fire, wondering in his impatience whether the building had been abandoned. He knew, of course, somebody was tending to the fire else it would have gone out long ago.
The door cracked open and a child bundled up in fleece peeked in through. “Papa, traveler! And a kuk!”
A man called out from inside, “Well? Let ‘em in!”
After the child slid the door fully open, Ahdab hurried Ellora inside to keep from freezing the home’s inhabitants. The confused kuk neighed and whined about entering the enclosed space, but eventually decided she preferred this place to the cold. This was no inn, he realized, but a humble home. A couple and two children occupied the space on one side of the hearth, and a man on the other side sat on the ground next to his wooden pack.
“Tei,” the father said. “It’s your turn.”
“Mm.” The child who let inside Ahdab grabbed a chunk of chopped wood from a pile in the near corner and took it outside, shutting the door behind him.
Ahdab reached for the coin purse in his coat. “How much—.”
The mother held up a hand. “For the warmth, your company. For the food, your stories.”
Free? “A kind offer,” Ahdab said, “but what of Ellora? A stable nearby? She need not inconvenience you.”
“All life is sacred.”
“You will let my kuk and me stay at no charge? I have money from Mura and Amouk.”
“For the warmth, your company. For the food, your stories.”
“I understand.” Ahdab removed Ellora’s pack and carried it to the door. He shook the snow off outside and then set it beside Ellora. Heat from the hearth tickled his arms and cheeks out of numbness even before he took his place beside the other traveler. “My name is Ahdab,” he said.
“Mine’s Gin,” the other traveler said.
The freezing air and Tei reentered the home. “Thank you, Tei,” the father said. “Sorry for the interruption, Gin. Please, continue.”
Gin nodded. “So I was sayin’. There we was, leagues above the highest trees grew. I look left’n see Suiza, look right’n see Amouk. Ohn says he sees grass up ahead, but he seein’ things. We all of us call him crazy but he swears on his life and calls us crazy. Gods musta twisted his head ‘cause he takes off his clothes and says he’s burnin’ up.” He placed heavy emphasis on these last two words.
“Ohn was the first to go. Froze. But ya know what? His skin was burned. All ours was. Bundled up so the sun couldn’t see no skin, yet we hurt like day in the desert.” Gin rolled up his sleeves and held his arms out for the fire. Blisters and scabs covered where his skin had not turned purple.
“So we keep climbing, right? Shoom! Zed slips straight down in the snow. Not fallin’ frontward or backward. Straight down, like a hole just opens at his feet and drops ‘im to the bottom of the earth. Now we really panic. Coon and Eje, too, they slipped through.” Gin raise his arm up, fingers pointed down to imitate a human, and then dropped the hand down, sending the mimicry down to imaginary hell.
“And then, Nor and me, we was the last ones. We survivin’ those trials, yeah, but the gods, they has one more trick. See, the air in the heavens is no mortal air. Heavenly air. Higher up we go, less good the air does for our breathin’.
“Ya know what it’s like, running fast as ya can, then ya stop? Can’t catch a breath no matter how much you try breathin’. That’s what heavenly air tastes like. We stop there how long? Standin’ there, breathin’. The gods, they take our air. What can we do? Fall over ’n’ die. Only Nor falls frontward. I fall backward. I slip and roll all the day down that mountain.
“The gods, they curse me for treadin’ in their land, but they bless me for turnin’ back. I faint on the way down, but I wake up. Nor faints on the mountain, and I swear he never wakes up, but he dies proud. He climbed the highest any man or woman ever climbed. Me, I was second. That don’t win no prizes, but I keep livin’. That means I can try again.”
“Try again?” Ahdab said.
Gin chuckled. “Not right away. I’m returnin’ to Tinem to tell my colleagues about them trials. Plan some more.”
“Have you heard of the Suiza tale of flight? The inventor, Nil, crafted wings for man to fly on. Higher and higher he soared, but not far. The sun melted his wings and… his pride killed him.”
“That’s what it means, bein’ human. Proud, stubborn, and ambitious. Think ‘bout it. These are real problems. Unbearable cold, sun burnin’ through clothes, invisible holes in the ground, unbreathable air… What if we solve them problems, then? Few will ever climb high as we did, but everybody breathes, ’n’ some folks have trouble breathin’. Sick or injured or however so. I wanna climb that mountain, Ahdab, but to do that much, we all needs ta work together solvin’ problems that’ll make humankind better.
“So, Ahdab, what’s bringin’ to Kiterra this time a’ year?”
Ahdab sighed. “My story is nothing like yours.”
The father shook his head. “Whatever has you crossing Kiterra in the winter must make an interesting tale.”
Ahdab eyed Ellora, who had curled up and lay on the floor near him. If he was to share the secret life of Ellora and himself, he needed a moment to prepare his thoughts.
“Luj, it’s your turn,” the mother said.
One of the children stood without complaint and headed outside with a piece of the chopped wood in hand.
Ahdab thought about how much work they had put into gathering and chopping the wood only to use it on a campfire that heated neither patrons nor dinner. Only the most desperate merchants and refugees crossed Kiterra in the winter. Just how many desperate people were there? Perhaps it was just coincidence that the family had taken in another traveler, and the reason for the signal fire was simply their means of trying to save lives. When he imagined the sight of several wonderers’ frozen bodies sprawled across the farmland in the spring melt, he shuddered.
Luj returned without a word.
Finally, Ahdab said, “Try not to laugh. I am searching for violet dyes.”
“Violet dyes. The rarest color, worth its weight in platinum. When the sun falls to the west, look to the east: those are oranges and violets. Or, visit Mura. Everyone in the royal family has violet eyes.” Ahdab thought, Everyone but her.
“I am a seamster. Years ago, I indulged in the finest silk, the richest dyes and crafted the finest dress of violet and gold. The sister of Mura’s king had an eye for it, paid a fair price, and wore it to a festival. Wives and daughters were all drawn to it, asking how she came by it. Needless to say, I lived quite well in those days.”
Ahdab shook his head. “The king’s daughter. His only daughter. Her wedding is the first day of summer, and the king asked me for her wedding dress. Those other customers, they took reds and yellows. The king wants violet. It must be violet to match her eyes.” To turn her red eyes violet. “Violet dye is made from one type of snail from Kiobu. Merchants cannot afford to carry it. I had hoped for safe passage during the spring, but…”
“Spring never came,” Gin said.
Ahdab nodded. “I told the king, ‘The winter will not allow me to complete the job.’ And so he said, ‘Will the winter treat you favorably for succeeding?’ ‘No,’ I answered him. Then he said, ‘Will the winter keep you safe from Amouk invaders? ‘No,’ I said. He told me, ‘Then the winter already made up its mind about you. I have not. Do what you wish with that information.’
“And so I left in search for violet dyes.”
“May Holly King ease the winter, then,” the mother said.
Ahdab shook his head. “No, let it snow. The winter has already made up its mind. The best we can do is embrace it. Snow keeps bandits away, and like I said, violet is worth its weight in platinum. Thieves will kill for it. Betray their partners. This never-ending winter is all the protection I can afford.”
The hearth crackled. Ahdab flipped his gaze between each of the members of the family and then locked eyes with Gin. “That first violet dress. Where’d ya get the dye? May I ask?”
I just told you how. “Ellora doesn’t like hearing that one. What’s for dinner?”