K’brin: Chapter 5, Journal 21 – Strangers In A Quiet Land

  • The weeks leading up to our next trip to Varlada passed in a blur.  The reality of traveling to an alien world, our homeworld, countless miles from Pern finally struck B’dir and – for the first time in his life – he started showing signs of nervousness.
  • It felt strange to have weyrlings in the barracks so soon after it had been vacated.  It seemed like the last clutch had graduated to being full dragonmen just the day before – and some part of me couldn’t help but point out that most of them hadn’t even been Blooded yet.  Even stranger was when, a few weeks into their training, G’van released the weyrlings from the barracks for the first time and they all ran to the Living Caverns and then froze at the entryway, terrified at the prospect of encountering real dragonmen
  • About a week and a half before we were due to leave, T’vin and Senesta held the first Turnday party for Jayvin.  I made a point of being there for them, since I knew they would soon face ever-increasing pressure to place him in the Weyr’s creche so they could return to their duties. 
  • ‘Zana and I spent at least a few companionable minutes on her ledge each night, watching the stars through her farviewer as the Archer’s Arrow drew a hair closer to the Brazier constellation every day. 
  • We checked our gear, jumped to Great Isle, and then took the great leap to Kirengar, one of the Dominions of Varlada, in the second week of August.  ‘Zana and I had calculated that the jump would be two and a half minutes, and were accurate within a handful of seconds.  We really were getting better at this.
  • Our dragons burst from between into a thick bank of low-lying clouds, their frozen hides causing contrails to form around them and whirl fancifully off their tails.  As we drifted lower to escape the clouds, impossibly dramatic terrain faded into view.  Below us were barren high plateaus, deep river valleys, and sometimes carefully terraced hills carved between them.  The few rolling plains that we saw were broken by thick, craggy stone pillars.  Valenth spotted a number of volcanic formations on the horizon, including a snowcapped mountain some distance to the east.  We guessed that a large body of water lay to the west, based on the wind and the subtly different color of the sky in that direction.
  • The air felt noticeably different here, thick and humid like on Big Island but also somehow crisper and cleaner.  It was surprisingly pleasant.
  • We flew slow and low to the ground, both to avoid straining our cold, lethargic dragons and to hopefully avoid detection by Kirengari dragonriders.  We were forced to fly up and down the steep river valleys, and sometimes go around the large stone pillars as they emerged from the mist.
  • Eventually, we spotted the village of Zellai in the distance.  It was surrounded by steeply-terraced farmland.  The villagers used an ingenious system of pullies and lifts to raise giant baskets carrying both people and crops up and down the valley sides.  As we got closer, we could see that most buildings were made of wood with either open or oiled paper windows.  There were no roads, but raised wooden sidewalks connected all of the buildings.  Curiously, the village was obviously laid out in a very orderly fashion – yet not a single path was perfectly straight.
  • A number of small boats floated in the nearby river, ranging from small fishing boats to large barges that – judging from the decorations and children playing on them – were used as floating houses.  T’ria studied their shipped sails thoughtfully for a few moments, and announced that they probably looked like dragon wings when unfurled.
  • There was no good place for us to land in or near Zellai, so I found an area of what looked like deep sand and ordered my wingriders to dismount while hovering – just like candidates during a Hatching.  Our dragons flew off to perch on huge stone outcroppings, green with life, not too far away.
  • The people of Carindas had fearfully hidden from us.  The people of Galatia had eagerly, hopefully come out to meet us.  The people of Kirengar quickly cleared the streets and retreated to the safety of their houses.  They then calmly sipped tea as they watched us with curiosity from the open windows on the second stories of their homes.  They weren’t terrified or excited to see us, but somewhere oddly in between.
  • ‘Zana heard a sound that we followed to a large, open street where the villagers were bustling to quickly and efficiently set up an impromptu market.  They had obviously decided we had come here to trade, not fight.  The people of Zellai were surprisingly friendly and eager to help, but none of them spoke our language – making trade difficult.  Eventually they brought a man named Seo, the local money exchanger.  He wore a dark gray tunic over pants that were much looser than we were accustomed to, and sandals instead of shoes or boots.  His clothes were embroidered with a clever interlocking pattern of green jumping and diving fish.  Seo helped people figure out what the small gold and silver trade ingots we carried were worth, and assisted with translation as best he could using the few hundred words of Gairian he spoke.
  • We shopped and haggled for small gifts and souvenirs while waiting for the local authorities to make themselves known.  L’nos and V’dos bought two large bottles of alcohol.  I purchased gifts for several people back home, and a couple of small items for myself as well.  ‘Zana bought a clay incense burner shaped like a fish with the hints of scales lightly scratched into its sides.  Fish were a very common motif in Zellai.  ‘Mala mused that fish must mean something to these people, but we didn’t yet know enough to guess at what.
  • ‘Zana and T’ria pointed out that hair styles must mean something, too.  All young children had ponytails.  Older children had two.  Young women all had either a single braid going down their back or over one shoulder.  Married women, on the other hand, wore their hair up in a bun, using a headband, or similar.  Men had short hair, or wore long hair bound up in a queue.
  • Everyone in Zellai was shorter than average on Pern, meaning that my dragonriders towered over them.  They tended to have very oval faces, prominent cheekbones, a wide nose over full lips, nut brown skin, and black hair that tended to be wavy or curly.  Two distinct ethnicities were represented: one that was slender with long limbs, and another that was sturdier, with broader hips and shoulders, and with more body hair. Few men had much facial hair, though, and none had beards.
  • When we had finished shopping, we were escorted to where what I guessed was an extended family stood proudly, nervously, outside their restaurant.  They ushered us inside and sat us at a large circular table with a small feast arrayed on it.  They gave us each our own eating utensils and small bowl, and – when they saw us clumsily reaching past one another to try this or that – very politely showed us how the center of the table top rotated to allow for easy access to all the food.  The food had been cut into decorative patterns, indicating that much time and effort had gone into its preparation.  The servants gently, apologetically, took away the empty dishes after reach course – keeping the table clean and organized at all times.  They used many unfamiliar foods and spices, but most of the food was still delicious to us anyway.  I guess tastes hadn’t changed much, even across such vast gulfs in space and time.
  • The meal lasted a long time:  three courses, several small desserts, and then some sort of tea.  We were drinking the last of our tea when a woman with curls in her hair wearing a long-sleeved dress edged in rows of green and brown beads approached.  The shoulders of her dress were open, revealing tattoos in a swirling pattern.  She introduced herself as Lorekeeper Jianya, appointed by Duke Korkoon of the City of Sukorai, and said we were welcome there.
  • I told Lorekeeper Jianya that we had traveled a very long distance to speak with her, and asked if we could do so somewhere more private.  She pulled up a chair, and assured me that the restaurant owners would keep our secrets.  We were their guests, so they would fight and die to defend us even against the most hopeless of odds – so of course they would not divulge our secrets.
  • Unlike Lorekeepers Findmar or Shindra, Jianya seemed completely unimpressed when I told her that we were dragonriders of Pern, sons of Carenath and daughters of Faranth, the so-called “Children of the Rebellion”.  She replied coolly that they had been warned of the heresy concerning dragonriders from another world, and that we would therefore have to have our loyalty tested.  Seeing no other path forward, I agreed to this test.  She nodded decisively, stood, and announced that we would leave for the trial the next morning.
  • Lorekeeper Jianya spoke briefly with the owners of the restaurant and then left.  We didn’t share a common language, but they showed us to what were obviously guest rooms – telling us what we needed to know.
  • The people of Zellai cleared the streets and returned to their homes at sundown.  Curious, T’ria and I wandered briefly after sunset and I listened for a while to someone playing what sounded like a poorly-tuned six string guitar in their home.  I documented a couple of their discordant songs, full of too many sharps and flats, and then returned to the restaurant to work on my preliminary notes and drawings.
  • We were awakened by the sound of village life early the next morning.  Valenth reported that he was having great fun watching several faires of firelizards swooping and diving to catch bugs over the sluggish river.
  • ‘Mala and M’din went exploring and returned a little later to report that all of the buildings were heavy timber with walls made of thinner wood paneling or, more commonly, oiled paper.  There were no locks on any doors anywhere.
  • Not to be outdone, ‘Zana pointed out that almost nothing in Zellai was perfectly square – not the architecture, not the furniture, nothing.  Most things that would have been square on Pern, such as windows, were elongated rectangles here.  Circular and triangular furniture were much more common here than on Pern, too.
  • B’dir casually mentioned that everyone wore thin cloth, mostly cotton, and he hadn’t seen any leather anywhere.  He also hadn’t seen a single combat weapon, not even a fighting knife, the entire time we’d been here.
  • The villagers brought our dragons a whole flock of large, angry geese to eat.  It wasn’t a huge meal for them, but they were still lethargic and not very hungry after their long trip between the day before.  It was a very generous offering from such a modest village. 
  • Lorekeeper Jianya joined us a little later that morning, dressed in a blue dress with gold trim this time.  When I told her she’d be flying with T’ria (to avoid possible impropriety of riding with a male dragonrider), she asked T’ria’s permission and then humbly approached Selenath.  She surprised us all by addressing the green directly, “Good morning, Selth!  I hope you will give me your permission to ride upon you today!”
  • The extended family who owned the restaurant came to see us off, and I was surprised when their venerable grandmother came forth to offer me a blanket with a very flowery parting phrase.  I had Jianya help me with an equally flowery and polite response, which seemed to please the restaurant owners to no end.
  • When asked, Jianya explained that we were in the lands of the Zai Dynasty, protected by Fortress Modaisa (“Crown of Clouds”).  We would be traveling to the Garden of Wisdom in the lands of the Bohran Dynasty, protected by Fortress Nochibo (“Stoneheart”).
  • We flew over breathtakingly dramatic terrain for a couple of hours before we came to an obvious border between territories, where giant poles with heavy cloth banners on either side had been planted in the ground.  Pointing north was a banner with a black swirl symbol on it, while pointing south – the direction we were coming from – was a green tree with sprawling branches and a few roots showing.
  • The terrain rose higher as we continued north, and the shadows of our dragons passed over several villages before we finally arrived at a collection of more timber and paper buildings atop a broad plateau.  The plateau was covered with lush, dark green vegetation that was fed by a couple of small waterfalls cascading off the top, hinting at a natural spring.  Impressively broad steep, switchback roads had been carved into the side of the plateau for travelers coming over land, but we had the luxury of landing on a large stone courtyard etched with several symbols:  swirl, tree, muscular feline (we would later learn that this giant feline is called a tiger), flower with nine petals, bell, and a strange bird (called a crane).
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