It begins with brokenness.
Have you ever noticed that at the base of a powerfully, towering, granite mountain there are crumbling and broken pieces of rock and gravel? Have you ever imagined that the rounded, gradually rising foothills that lead up to the massive mountain you see in the distance, might have been the covered-over layers of such broken rock and gravel? Broken pieces laid down, layer upon layer, year after year, packed with sediment, and washed with rain and dew, until a carpet of green cover it, and trees found their way up through the captured soil to sprout and aspire to heights in the shadow of the great mountain? Those trees have a root system that grapples with the buried rock that once was the brokenness of the mountain we see today. Mountain folk call it scree. When things wash up on the shore of a beachhead, or lake, the term used by folks in the sea or lake country is detritus. With enough detritus, year after year, as sand and waves push over and upon it, an island can form where once there was only a submerged reef or rocky shoal. Both Scree and Detritus are the leavings of something that once occupied another time and space. So too a life is much like that. We must become broken to allow the mountain to rise from the flat land and the island to arise from the sea.
When we finished our meal and the tables were cleared away, Corimanth let us out of the refectory up steps and onto to a balcony just barely extending over the tree line. He heard me remark upon the scene of mountains in the distance, rising on the other side of the large valley below beyond the great lake reservoirs. On the edge of the lake, we could see the small tree line of a chain of islands just off the distant shore.
“Interesting,” he commented quietly, off to my right, gazing out into the distance, “Your perspective is much farther reaching than mine was. You may find much in common with The Eagle if you have the chance to meet him.”
“How do you mean?” I asked, truly interested in what he was thinking.
He gestured away from the fore view to extending walls of Azragoth, which from this balcony, we could see were much broader, taller and thicker along the backwoods section of the city than in the front area near the Barbican.
“Notice the broad walls there, and the wide allure way on top of the rampart. Those walls were newly fortified, just a year before the Xarmnians took the city. Do you know why?”
I shook my head, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
He gestured upward, towards the cliff-side towering massively above the back way, its jagged stone faces catching the dim light forming almost an angry scowl down upon the city of Azragoth.
“What you said earlier. Scree. There is a fault line running up the side of the mountain ledge’s face. The area is broken, and part of the massive rock have slid partway down the mountain. Eventually, that weight will break and crush the stone below it. Water pools behind the slabs with each rain, and it trapped there. Winters freeze it, and the forming ice further fissures the rock as the melting and freezing cycle drives water deeper into the jagged cracks in the rocks below. Azragoth was a prospering city, growing faster than was ever planned for when the land was first cleared. It was built, perhaps too close to the mountain edge and cliff-side. One evening the original wall was smashed open when a heavy rain loosed a great slab that slid and tumbled down the mountain, breaching the wall and killing the people that lived in the apartments just below it. They had believed they were in the safest place in the city, far from the main gates, and the postern gates. Yet they died in a sudden tragic moment because of…scree.”
I pondered that a moment. Such a terrible image of the wall crashing down through wooden beamed ceilings, burying those people in the rubble and rock. Azragoth had had more than its fair share of tragedy.
“Yet out of that tragedy, the back wall was rebuilt and fortified, thicker and taller than it had ever been before. You might say the backend of the city is far stronger than any other place within these walls. It is where Maeven and some of the other children hid with the cleric and his family so long ago. Ironically, sheltering in the very shadow of prior deaths. You didn’t know that, did you?”
I shook my head, “No I did not.”
“And as to detritus,” he continued after a reflective pause,” there is a custom here observed by everyone of adult age who stays here in our fair city. It is one, which might cause the people you lead to protest having ever come here. It is not one we particularly enjoy, but it serves its purpose to remind us of what lead to the plague that killed most of our citizens as well as the occupiers. Maeven may already have told you of the time and dispensation we received from that tragedy. We are now into our twentieth season. A costly dispensation purchased in blood, but began as a foolish oversight. Our city is served by a series of cisterns in the public square. These are fed by the rivers flowing from the highland, down through the forests and breaks and into the lower valley basin below. Our town, like any other town faced the problem of removing waste from the village streets without spoiling the fresh water spring fed wells we all drank from. Long ago a series of trenches were dug under the street pavements, and gutters were created to wash out refuse beneath the city. Every street in the city has a small canal of waste water running beneath flat paver stones on the lower edge of the street. Mortared barrel tiles form their lining. We call these waterway trenches ‘gullets’.”
He braced himself against the balcony balustrade, looking down into the city streets below.
“Early designers of the city of Azragoth diverted veins from the river Trathorn forming a small branched canal that feeds water to the closed city for this very purpose. Over time, these gullets were taken for granted. Water made its way in, under the city walls, and ran down into the sewage gullets and its flow pushed waste water underneath and out of the other side of the city and down the valley. The cesspits from the garderobes also flow down into the gullet canals so you can imagine the vile filth that builds up down there. Left to neglect, detritus had built up in the gullets over time, greatly restricting the amount of water that flowed through them. As the raw sewage built up in the gullets it attracted the woodland rats, which entered the city through these gullet canals. These rodents lived and bred by the thousands in the sewage, stealing out in the evenings to forage for whatever rubbish and refuse spilled from the market carts or collected in the rubbish bins behind homes and tavern halls which did not make it down into the sewers.”
Here he turned and looked at me.
“Detritus does not just wash up on a beach or riverbank, you know. It can be anything, from loose rock to limbs flowing down a river…or canals servicing the rubbish-drains beneath a city.”
“This is where our custom comes in. It is a service we all perform in remembrance of those who passed. Something I was told to bring you and your people to, before meeting with the council. Ever new thing is built with or upon something broken. Buildings rise, but before they can the ground must be broken to hold a foundation. Every stone wall is built of broken rock. Every sprouting seed is planted in and arises from broken ground. Every new working idea most often follows upon the heels of many failures. This is what it will take for your people to learn to be warriors in a dangerous land. As you say, mountains rise from the land by breaking through the topsoil, when all that is underneath them is in upheaval. It took a terrible disaster to teach us this. A master’s work starts with small broken pieces, and is brought together and refashioned into something more than can be imagined. This is the lesson of Azragoth.”
From the balcony, we were led down another series of steps to a central courtyard where most of the main streets radiated from around a circular central hub with a wide open area and projecting galleries and shops lining the headings of each block. We assembled around Corimanth and Morgrath and the others soldiers, their swords sheathed for the moment, as townsfolk poured into the stone park from side streets and shops. This was the marketplace were the first incidents had happened. This was the starting place for it all. The vendor carts had all been covered and locked down and rolled off to the various homes and stall ways. Shopkeepers had brought all of their wares into the shop alcoves for the night. The area was open, and the sea of brightly colored tent canopies were all folded and put away for the evening. But for the people, the open-area market was stowed for the night and the crowd had dutifully assembled to perform the custom that Corimanth had spoken of. Children watched from the balconies and peripheries, familiar with what would happen shortly, but we were still unaware. A delegation of men and women, in clothes seeming more in line with collecting houses and lenders, came forward through a parted pathway, from a pavilioned terrace. Each carried before them a large pole with a half-mooned metal blade affixed to the end of each pole, that was mired in blackened filth and smelled awful. The citizens of Azragoth revealed small metal hooks from their sides, with a blunted and flattened tip. They moved along the side of each street at the low leeward end of the thoroughfare. From the radiating center of the courtyard, we could see citizens lining each of the radiating streets from the city center to beyond the view where each street curved away, following the natural contour of the ground upon which the city was built.
I leaned into Begglar, as he and Nell and Dominick were the only ones in our company, save Maeven, who might be aware of what was about to transpire. In a few more hours, the land would grow dark, and I was not sure of what was coming.
“What do you know about this custom?”
Begglar shook his head, “It has been many years since I have been to Azragoth. Much has changed. My trips were only day trips, so I have never had the occasion to be here at dusk. Nell does not visit here for obvious reasons. Dominick usually comes with me to help load the wagon, but we have not had the ability to come since the Xarmnians have occupied our highlands. Whatever trade had been done was meted out by the Xarmnians and we’ve always received the short-end of those deals. We had no idea Corimanth was even here. I’m sure she and he will have much more to say to each other in private.”
A gray-bearded man stepped up upon a raised dais in the center of the courtyard and raised his arms for attention.
The crowds around us began to quiet down as all attention focused upon him.
“This evening we have guests in our midst who are unfamiliar with our customs here. They are here on trial and tonight they will be tested as they join us in this evening’s duty to our citizenry. You all are familiar with this practice, but for the benefit of these newcomers, I will explain it only briefly before we begin.”
Here he looked down among the crowd and Corimanth pointed me out in the congregation to him.
“You there!” he said gesturing to me, “I am told you are called O’Brian.”
“Thanks,” I muttered under my breath to Begglar.
To which he almost cheerily responded, “Don’t mention it.”
In a louder voice, I answered the gray-bearded man, “I am.”
“Do you vouch for these others you are travelling with? And are you prepared to be held personally responsible for their actions in our city, as the one who leads them?”
The eyes of those travelling with me on our shared quest turned to me expectantly.
The pressure was on, and they and the townsfolk and the leaders all awaited my answer.
Never let it be said that leadership is an enviable role, when the weight of its implied responsibility is laid heavily and squarely upon one’s shoulders. What the man was asking of me, was a tall order, and would be even for a captain who had led seasoned soldiers into battle whom he knew by experience could be trusted. Those I led in fellowship were by and large unknown to me. I only knew them to be a party of the willing, some of which had already questioned my methods and judgement and who had no knowledge of what I was capable of, or where exactly I was leading them. Only two had entrusted me with their names. Three if you counted Laura, who had left our company to return to the Surface World. One, the young man called Will, had given me his name grudgingly. Three of our company had deserted and turned back, two of these were slain by the Protectorate guards, as we had together witnessed, and the other was presumed dead as well. Only Christie had without hesitation given me her name, though my actions in our confrontation with the Troll had not warranted her trust. It was a hard thing, being asked of me, but one I knew I must be willing to do and take, if I was to lead them any further. I once asked myself if I would be willing to die to protect them. If that is the ultimate stand for leadership, this act of vouching for them was a call to bravery, and a test of my own mettle and will to commit to what needed to be done.
As I looked from each of their expectant faces, at once nervous, and tense, I then turned to the elder and clearly gave my answer.
It was time that I put some faith in them, if I expected them to put any trust in me or the calling to which I strove to fulfill.
“So be it!” the elder answered after a pause.
“You are all witnesses,” he spoke to the citizenry of Azragoth within hearing of his voice.
“Tonight and every night at the close of a week since that terrible sickness that took many from us, years ago, we perform this service to our city and for our posterity, a cleansing of the vile filth that runs beneath us. You among us, unfamiliar with this will learn and participate with us in this cleansing. We have over time come to refer to this process as ‘Cleaning the baby’.”
Citizens around us chuckled as we newcomers looked from one to the other in puzzlement.
“Like any helpless child, an infant naturally soils itself during the course of a day. Some children, more than most.”
Laughter broke out and the crowd seemed to be enjoying their shared joke.
“Corimanth was to have told you how our city came to have been ravaged by a plague of disease carrying rats. That these vile creatures came upon us from the gullets and gutters of this town. So each night at the close of a week, we observe the following practice before retiring for the evening.”
The man nodded to those carrying the poles with half-moon blades and they fanned out into the crowd coming to stand before each of our party, holding the vile smelling instruments.
“These men and women who stand before you now, bearing the rakes,” he continued, “will direct you by example to perform the ritual with us down each of the main streets of our city. Watch what they do, and prepare yourselves to take over their duty, alternating upon each street until we come to the walls of the inner curtain. There the gullets deepen and expand below the killing fields and there our evening duties will end in the dead sectors of city. No one is to go beyond the inner curtain wall. Citizens of Azragoth, you each have your duties. Assist these newcomers as need be, but do not perform the task for them, when it is their turn. You have your orders.”
And then, in a louder voice, he gave the charge to all, “Now. Let them be opened!”
The sudden cacophonous sound of metal striking thousands of stones echoed around us, and the sound cascaded through the streets of the city, startling us as we witnessed the use to which the citizens were putting their long metal hooks. Paver stones lining the gutters were being wedged and levered upward as the flat bladed of each metal hook were driven into the grooved edge between the mortared and cobbled stones of the street and gutter. A vile, putrescence smell arose from the overturned and exposed gutter running beneath the upended stones, and each of our Azragothian guides called us to attention to watch what they would do next.
The gray-bearded fellow, who had spoken to us from the central dais, descended carrying his own pole with that vile blackened half-moon blade drifting downward as he approached.
“Follow me,” he said, as he neared me, and I made my way after him, as he approached the tapering end opening to the vile smelling trench. A stream of greenish water ran from a recessed pipeline made of puddled barrel tiling and a sluicing levered gate controlled the flow of water fed into the vile underground trench. The water from the sluice was fairly clear, but as it progressed down the slanted trench the more clouded and greenish it became.
The elder man pivoted and dipped the curved end of his blade into the water so that the blades edges fit within the curved bottom of the trench. He shifted the pole in his hands and worked his hand further back to grip nearer the end of the pole. He turned to me and with his free hand extended, he formally introduced himself.
“I am called Ezra. I am the head of the council of Azragoth, and also the leader here and mayor of the city. I have a singular philosophy of leadership, not shared by most men and women in places of prominence, and it is simply this: A leader is the first in line willing to do what he expects others to learn by his example. And so I have done, for over fifty-seven years of my life. I have been where I have asked others to go. I have done, what I have asked others to do. These are the things that have brought me success as a leader, and the respect required to maintain it. These are lessons you would be wise to learn if those sojourning with you are to follow you in trust. If you do not first commit to them, why should you expect them to commit to you and entrust their safety to you?”
Time for me to take some of my own medicine, I thought. But there was wisdom in the man’s words, so I took his hand in a clasp of trusting goodwill. There was much I needed to learn, and I was pleased and astounded, that the one teaching me to lead was also the one teaching me humility by his very example.
“Now watch closely.”
He began to scrape the bottom gently, causing the blackened and green sludge to rise and cloud the trench water, as he moved the pole down the gullet way. Water sluiced past and began to carry the vile sludge forward, and the citizens on either side of us flipped and set back each paving stone into place as we passed them, and I learned the skillfully demonstrated technique.
Together we worked the trenches, shoveling and pushing muck further down the gullets, me working the moon-toothed pole and blade he called a ‘Monk’s spade’, and alternating with him when I became fatigued. The knotted and corded muscles in his arms, as he worked the blade through the sludge and muck, sluicing the day’s accumulation down ahead of us, belied his age. This man was not only a leader, but a laborer and potentially a warrior in his own right, so very different from politicians I was familiar with in the Surface World. A doer, not just a talking point. Pavers were turned and then resealed, some individually, some cleverly pivoting upon a hinge and winch system of ropes and wooden pulleys, exposing larger sections of the gullet trench, thereby speeding our progress.
I wondered how the others were faring with their leads. Over the course of our labor, I learned that this duty was performed once per week and that each of the others leading the effort were elders of the city council. I was asked many questions, as I am sure the others were as well, and it seemed to me that this was both a disarming and clever way to both test and discover our commitment, intentions and our individual character in short order. The council could have just as easily, brought us before them and listened to our designated spokesperson, but they would never truly know us until they worked alongside us and made a direct observation on what was an unseemly and very humbling duty.
I better understood the playful metaphor the elder had made about ‘Cleaning the Baby’. This job was a labor of love, just like any mother’s or father’s task would be in cleaning their soiled infant. It wasn’t pleasant, it smelled horrid, and the best thing to do was just to get in there and get it done, but be thorough about it, all the while knowing that the precious child wiggling and squirming about, has no idea what this unpleasantness must be done for them. It is a thankless duty, but a nurturing, loving parent does it in spite of how tired they may feel or repulsed by the extent of it. They may be finely dressed for an evening out, or attired in sweats and a badly faded T-Shirt, they still perform it because their child has a need for it. So too, the city of Azragoth was a town that suffered greatly, but its community of suffering brought its people together in a way nothing else could. Its long-dead former leadership, had neglected the upkeep of the city and sought only to become a great commercial center for the area. It welcomed all but forgot that it was regarded as the city on a hill performing an over-watch for the smaller towns below.
When our duties finally led us to the inner walls of the city, we closed up the last paver-stone over the deeper gullet way, and Ezra, the city elder turned to me.
“The Monk’s spade,” he said, lifting the blackened blade from the ground, “serves both as tool and a weapon.”
He turned the blade slowly as he lifted and pivoted the pole, letting water drain off of its slick black surface. The edge of the blade shown silver despite the darkening twilight, its scraped surface sharpened against the bottom of the gullet pipeline we had followed through our course through the city streets.
“Any weapon you take up, you must learn its duality and how to use it to serve both purposes with equal skill.”
The moon-shaped arcs at either side of the blade hissed as he swung the pole in a slashing arc, then caught the pole in a sweeping motion, it blade gleaming in the lowering sun.
“This blade is now one of the seven deadliest blades in the city. Your people followed the other elders who carried the remaining six.”
He fixed his gaze on me evenly.
“This blade is not deadly because of its present handler, nor because of my skill in its use as a fighting weapon. It is deadly because its blade has been through the sickness and sins of this city. A mere scratch from this blade will kill a man because it is a vile weapon used for the purposes we have served here.”
“Consider well the weapons that may be used against you and your company. Do not rely on your own ability or become complacent in the lack of ability of another. It is the nature of a weapon employed against you that should cause awareness and your plan of countering it or evading it. Many skilled and practiced warriors have been felled by novice opponents. You and your travelers must learn to counter many different types and ways of attacking. So whatever weapon you choose, you must learn the method for which you will counter and turn the danger of another.”
Ezra executed a posture of assault and then defense, spinning the deadly blade this way and that, deftly handling the pole both mid and end ranged along the shaft.
“But most importantly,” he added, with a flourish and then a slash that landed and sliced in the ground mere inches from his own feet, “be wary that your own blade, does not fell you.”
He stepped away from the blade and the pole, now swaying with the force of the impact, its blade driven deep between the stones of the cobbled street.
An attendant came forward and struggled to remove the blade from between the stones, and with some effort was eventually successful.
Ezra extended his arm and guided me in walking with him as we returned to the market courtyard.
“That is enough for the evening. Let us retire. Apartments have been prepared for you and your travelers. Tomorrow, you and your company will learn of the Breathing Sword. Now, it is time, my friend, that we all had a bath and a good night’s rest. There will be much to do in the morning. My captain of the army, whom we call The Eagle is expected to return any day now. He will guide you through to the Lake Country and around the movements of the gathering armies. In the meantime, you and your company will need to learn to see, and I believe you have a highly qualified person skilled in that very thing traveling with you.”
I had heard Begglar speak of this, but now it was coming around from a surprising direction.
“She is well known in the surrounding parts, even though it has been extremely long since she last visited us here in Azragoth.”
“What does that mean exactly? Learning to ‘see’?”
He smiled and patted my back indulgent, yet not patronizing.
“At the risk of sounding redundant, my boy. You will see.”