Imagine a dismal gray funeral plain . . . darker than all the imaginations of all the poets and mythmakers and student cinematographers have ever conceived. Shades of gray. Colors of half-light. Twilight without the warmth or romance. Then color it several shades darker and the image is set.
Desert world. Shadowlands. Coyote and Crow. Surprisingly the Other was not present. It seemed. Neither of the other beings evinced any sign of surprise or concern over the absence of the entity that often assumed the form of a small seemingly cuddly koala bear. Then, again, it was completely possible that both of the others were dissembling -- an art that both had considerable gifts in the practice thereof to a degree that reached quotidian proportions.
The black bird perched on the scrub mesquite that was not really mesquite looked at the shadowy gray tones of its surroundings with manifest distaste. Visibility was less than one hundred paces. Overhead, only a dull glow hinted at the presence of a sun, albeit a patently feeble undernourished weakling of a star.
"These places depress absolutely. Worse than any of the hells or purgatories invented by the old religions!" complained Crow. "Why can't we meet in the sunlight under a blue sky? In the countryside . . . perhaps in a nice cornfield?"
Coyote sneered mentally, sitting on his haunches beneath the tangled growth that was not quite a tree. Crow was utterly predictable. Next he would start to prattle again about "endgame." Endespiele. It seemed to have become birdbrain's favorite word over the last millennium. Coyote failed to understand why the damned bird insisted on constantly pecking away at the obvious. If it was going to happen anyway, why frustrate over it? There were other more interesting possibilities for the present. Interesting noises from the little night creatures that lived in this place . . . noises to investigate and perhaps hunt!
"Endgame! Endespiele!" The glossy black bird mouthed the words with great satisfaction. "There cannot be any question! When the two of them enter the so-called forbidden place, it sets in motion all of the events that were ordained millennia ago! The events we have been waiting for all these centuries!" The black bird shifted on its low perch -- almost giving the impression of excitement.
Coyote yawned, bored. It was his opinion . . . always had been . . . that birdbrain did not deserve Caoilte Dhu with all its possibilities and style. Especially style. What was the fragment that old poet had written?
Sunlit world in the darkness
Between tiny distant galaxies;
Fair gift to Dana's children,
Forests, seas and mountains,
Named you, hailed you
Fairest of all the worlds,
We called you Caoilte Dhu!
That was the gist of it, the pretty conceit. The other lines eluded him, but he knew that they were not lost. His memory, even after all the years, could recall the other lines if he really decided to make the effort. It was a great pity that Coyote's own ties to Terranova and the other place were so strong. Otherwise he would be tempted to do more that just begrudge the other worldspirit his link to Caoilte Dhu. Still . . . there was nothing to stop him from having a little fun with the old bird.
"What if . . . ," drawled Coyote lazily, just for the devil of it, "what if the old woman had been taking a different direction in the plan she devised with that curious yellow-eyed boy?" Open-mouthed, looking up at Crow, it seemed as usual that Coyote was laughing. Thinking about Gral, the yellow-eyed boy who claimed to be the son of the tancredi Fear Diadh and the Sidhe princess Karin Cu Roi. The boy who had somehow neutralized the Credne Ceardh, the great bubble gem that had protected the Sidhe Greenworld of Caer Ankenny. Who seemed to have been at the cusp of so many interesting happenings over the last year or two.
"That's not funny!" said Crow coldly. "You have a penchant for sick humor!"
But the big coyote was not paying attention; instead he was focused even more intently upon the noises of the night. Something had captured his attention. Something drawing near in the gray limbo of the shadowlands. Slowly, deliberately, he rose to his feet. The change in Coyote immediately alerted the black bird to the fact that something was happening.
"What!? What is it?" demanded Crow. "Have they reached the forbidden place?"
"No, not that . . . ," absently replied Coyote, then grinning suddenly. "The Other is coming . . . will be with us soon. It grows interesting, old bird! It grows very interesting indeed!"
Two men. Wanderer. Scholar. Opposites . . . classically different types . . . but not without certain vital similarities. The first and last of a singular breed of men -- those who possessed a transcendent curiosity that never could be suppressed or ignored. Curiosity that never could be satisfied. Not then, in that long ago past, nor in later years down the long corridors of time.
It was in the late spring when the roads begin to dry that they came together in Kinsit the Wicked. Just before the great spring caravans set out to the north and west as they always had in the past and continue to do so to this day. North to Gallatin . . . Ard Foraois . . . Ankenny . . . Sligo . . . and all the other cities and towns of the Gaeltacht. West across the southlands to the Black Lands towns and the cities of the Riparian League. Kruger. Tremalking. Brindisci. Seabright. West even into the Arkand Empire and as far as distant fabled Tiburon. Caravans that moved like the tides, year in and year out without noticeable exception.
What the wanderer and the scholar intended was new under the roof of the world, however. New and dangerous. Very dangerous . . . but by that token, also very interesting. Extremely interesting. South and then east they would travel. Easy traveling south on the highroad to Freiland -- until the road branched west to Sud Anderen, but where they would attempt the dangerous trek east. To attempt the impossible. To cross the impassable swamplands and mudflats. Then they would enter the place that could not be entered. The place that was forbidden. Both were hugely amused by words like impossible, impassable and especially forbidden. Neither had ever experienced a place that could not be entered by them -- aside from the Baile na Luacharachan, the special ancient place of the Tuatha de Danaan.
Kinsit the Wicked was and is one of the great trade hubs not just of the Southlands but of all of Caoilte Dhu. "Wicked" was not quite a misnomer, but the title was certainly exaggerated. Kinsit had been dubbed "wicked" in the past by the rather simple and prudish folk of the northern forests, Cymri and Gael, who still thought stone was a radical new experiment in building -- at least according to the southerners who thought them quaint if not primitive. It was an attitude, on both sides, that had not changed even since Red Aidan's famous in-taking of the city, the Great Kinsit Raid when the fury of the Gael had come to the Southlands with fire and sword. But the city was not really "wicked," not seriously wicked in the sense of evil. Kinsit simply had a love of money (which some said bordered on obsession) and Kinsit just loved to have a good time.
The wanderer speculated that if Kinsit ever caught on to the methods of promoting its own image, the town had outstanding potential as Caoilte Dhu's paramount party town! It just needed a catchy slogan or two to get things rolling, he was convinced. The wanderer, who had sometimes been a bard, wondered idly whether the local city fathers might be interested in parting with a little gold in exchange for a lively tune to help build the city's image. On the return trip . . . of course.
Whether Kinsit was wicked or pure was completely irrelevant to the scholar, who also had oftentimes pursued other arts as well. It was not that the scholar was immune to any of the city's famed vices and entertainments. In a long life, he had cheerfully and enthusiastically pursued a whole gamut of pleasures and diversions, many of which were not particularly wholesome. Generally speaking, he liked and even preferred places like Kinsit the Wicked. But now his entire focus was on the forbidden place to the east. Any and all pleasant vices that the city had to offer would have to be put off until later!
The wanderer was set on visiting one of those special Kinsit taverns famous for bevies of very attractive, very friendly young female employees who loved to meet and make friends with weary travelers. It was a prospect that had been in the wanderer's thoughts off and on as he moved down the long dusty road from Gallatin. Sweet anticipation made sweeter by time! At the very least, he thought he deserved time to relax in one of the equally famous sword taverns of Kinsit, time to enjoy some of the bright dark ale that came highly recommended, if his memory was correct.
Unfortunately, the humorless scholar was as hard as cold dark iron with as much sense of fun! The man was unrelenting, dense and hard as the bones of the mountains, or so it seemed to the sometimes bard who was very fond of similes and metaphors. It was not even a subject for reasonable men to discuss and debate, in the scholar's opinion. The time was right. It had been an interminable, frustrating wait for everything to be perfect. He was not going to let the wanderer screw up the work of centuries just because he could not control himself before the prospect of a lively wench and a cold tankard!
Naturally the wanderer was deeply insulted. He responded by sulking for the rest of the day. Sulking at the stables where they bought fresh horses for the first leg of their journey. Silent, nursing his offended dignity, at the outfitters where they added provisions for the trip, where the scholar also insisted that he obtain "serious weapons" in addition to the assorted knives he usually carried. He was still absorbed in his monumental sulk as he rode through the south gate of Kinsit the Wicked, resentfully staring at the back of the scholar riding a well-mannered chestnut gelding.
The wanderer found himself astride a different sort of mount. Out of spite -- perhaps to match his own bad humor -- he had selected a bad-tempered dun gelding with straggly black mane and tail. With an evil eye and a hard mouth, the perverse beast matched his mood perfectly, he thought. The scholar refrained from comment, but he knew that the wanderer had a habit of picking mean horseflesh. Mounts that also were usually extraordinarily tough with great stamina and a good turn of speed! He surmised that it also gave the man something to complain about to pass the time -- which he expected would soon grow tiresome.
On his companion's insistence, the man on the dun gelding had acquired a sgean righ and a compound Tamil bow with a quiver of war arrows. He had put his foot down at the other's suggestion that he include a gallowglass axe in his equipment. He was damned if he would drag along that weight -- in pounds and memory! His companion finally desisted, forced to be content that he had taken the bow and sword. It made the wanderer resentful to watch the scholar riding ahead of him, riding light without any heavy ironmongery. Loaded only with a long staff strapped across his saddlebow. He understood full well the potential of what the scholar could do with his staff -- understood that the staff was no mere stick -- but he was in no mood to be reasonable. Why abandon the pleasures of sulking and resentment? The taverns of Kinsit were a bitter loss. Reason to hold a grudge.
The road to Freiland was in great repair. Over the years it was a constant source of amazement, or amusement, to both men how the merchant class managed to obtain rulers who generally were great fans of road building and road maintenance. Trade ruled in the Southlands. Not necessarily more so in the end than north of River Drinning, not in all respects, but the focus on trade was definitely more obvious. And more efficient. Southlands merchants were great believers in efficiency.
Where the highroad turned west toward Sud Anderen, the two men halted their mounts and let them lower their heads to crop grass at the side of the road. Neither spared more than a glance down the road to Sud Anderen. That city in the heart of the Black Lands farms and latifundia held no interest for either of them. Industrious and virtuous, the farming community was the most boring place on the planet in the wanderer's opinion. But the travelers were looking east, not west. Surveying the unappealing terrain of swamplands and mudflats to the east, they unexcitedly surveyed he route they would have to follow to reach their intended destination.
"Was this your brilliant idea, old friend?" asked the man on the dun gelding.
"No," returned the other, coldly. He was ignoring the wanderer, studying the crude, rough track that headed into the eastern lands. Overgrown with weeds and summer hay, he expected the track would eventually vanish under the sea of swampgrass as it moved down into the lowlands of the Great Basin. The terrain he was seeing did not exactly put him in a receptive mood for the wanderer's lame attempts at jests. Especially since it was the other who had brought the matter to his attention a dozen years earlier -- bringing him yet another rumor about a secret track that led through the swamplands.
The wanderer sighed melodramatically. He had slid his boots from the stirrups, stretching like a great cat -- after first carefully checking that the dun was occupied with cropping the tall grass. Now he reluctantly put his feet back in the stirrups and started to lift the reins, noticing how the dun's ears came erect and gripping the saddle tightly with his knees. Man and horse knew each other's habits fairly well after a couple days on the road. The man permitted himself a little smile when the horse's ears relaxed after the beast felt the confident knee grip.
"Lead the way, general!" ordered the scholar, mocking his companion with a sardonic grin. He knew that the challenge would motivate the wanderer, even though the man hated the thought of being manipulated. Too, he had known for years that the other man despised titles like "general," which really got under his skin. Which was why the scholar used it. Fun and games.
The dun's rider gave him a sour look and hauled back on the reins to pull the animal away from the sweet grass, kicking him into motion at the same time. Turning the dun quickly to distract it from plotting rebellion, he headed down the narrow farm track that led to the swamplands. The crude excuse for a road -- really a glorified cow path - looked like it had not been used for months, which raised his impression of the intelligence of the local farmers considerably. He wondered gloomily just how long it would be before they were forced to abandon the horses and walk . . . or wade. It was really a pity that the expedition was not the scholar's idea and therefore the scholar's fault!