Welcome Letters From Unknown Lands, a series of stories about a world of fallen empires, magic, war, and power. Told through journal entries and letters written by travellers to their patrons, the story, place, and characters emerge piece by piece.
Today, Kalik sends word from a town beside the sea that is home to old dreams, and new nightmares. Enjoy!
Hessant, Southern Coast, Nine Days after Turning
‘Wait, that would be my advice,’ says Natia. ‘Wait, eat, enjoy the sun rise, it’s looking to be beautiful one.’ She gestures at the rocks that run along the edge of the shore road. ‘As soon as the sun is up above the pillars, then follow the road in. Not before, alright.’
I take her advice. She carries on down the road to the bones of the town and the harbour. The sea is the colour of rich ink at this time, the sky pale and promising heat and sweat for the day. I take out cheese and dried fruit and chew both while I wait. I try not to look at the towers, but even in daylight they draw the eye. They rise above the town, three of them: one from the cloister on the low hill, another from the arm of land which extends across the harbour’s far side, and a third on the landward edge, towards the road from the mountains. There was a fourth on the other headland that shelters the harbour. The stones of its foundations and the pillars of its cloister are all that remains. I watch the sun rise to the top of those pillars and try not to look at the fallen tower’s surviving siblings.
The town is called Hessant, but that name belongs to the past. Now it is just the town with the towers, or – for some – the harbour of dreams. Like every place and person that survives in this age, it has two faces: the present one looking out on the world as it is, and the skull beneath, the old bones over which that present has grown, hollow eyes staring back into a past forever lost. Hessant once prospered from the ships that sheltered in the arms of its harbour. Wealth built its houses and set clay tiles on its roofs. There was always coin to be made on the docks, or in the streets that spread from them. That wealth should have made the town fat, ballooning its bounds across the plateau behind it and the coast to its north and south. The cloisters and the towers stopped that.
The cloisters and towers existed before the harbour and the town. Maybe they had been driftwood and dry-stone at first, shelters for ascetics who stared at the stars and tried to hear the dreams of gods. With time, the towers reached higher. Pilgrims came, distant kings sent gifts of devotion and messengers to gather insight from those who lived within their walls. The dreaming priests, they were called. They slept on altars. Their lower ranks spent half their days asleep. The elders did not wake at all, but lay and dreamed and withered as their acolytes dripped honey water into their mouths to keep them alive. Sometimes they spoke as they slept, and the acolytes would listen. The keepers of the towers took one coin in ten of those that changed hands in the town that grew around them. They never let the town grow, saying that the sound of mortal dreams diluted the echoes of the divine. So, the towers grew higher, andHessant bloated in wealth but not in size.
That was the past, some of which I knew, some of which Natia had told me, while we walked along the road from the circle villages at dawn.
The waves are breaking loud on the stones as the sun edges above the pillars on the headland. People walk the other way as I walk towards the towers. Most are slack-faced and wide eyed. All are silent, a muted flow of humanity draining out of the town. A man, maybe fifty summers old, stumbles in front of me, dropping to the road. He shakes, shivering despite the heat. He is crying, tears splashing into the dust between his hands. He is trying not to look back at the towers. They all are.
Once I am amongst the town buildings, I don’t have to be so careful about keeping my gaze level. The buildings block out all but a fleeting glimpse of the tower tops. Most buildings are two or three floors high, and the edges of the tiled roofs shade the roads and alleys beneath. Cracks run through the faces of the buildings. Time and winter winds have flayed the paint from the remaining shutters and doors. Garlands of wildflowers hang from roofs where they have rooted in gutters and gaps. Tufts of grass edge the roads, and vines tangle the walled gardens that I glimpse through arches. Only the iron gates closing the ways into the houses and inner streets are new and well kept.
I find Natia in the remains of her lineage home.
‘Only one,’ she says, and goes back to winding the shroud around the body lying on the floor. She will take the body to the harbour mouth before sunset, weight it with rocks and give it to the tide to bear out into the depths. There will be others. Every night, there are sleepers who do not wake. It’s a fact, part of the transaction of the place, like the tax paid to the builders of the towers and the coins this sleeper gave to Natia to dream in the remains of her family’s house.
‘There was a light to the north,’ says Natia when I ask her about the night things changed. ‘That’s what my grandmother said. The ground shook. One of the towers fell. We left after that.’ No one knows what happened to the keepers of the towers, or the ascetics who tried to catch the dreams of the gods from their tops.
Natia’s family, like all of those that remain, left the town that night. That was a generation ago. They fled, but only as far as they needed to. They thought they might be able to return, so they stayed close, and the arc of villages on the coast and inland roads marks the boundary of where one can sleep in safety. No one who lives in those villages will go closer to the towers after sunset or before dawn. They leave that to the dream seekers.
The seekers come from every direction and distance. Most in summer, though even in winter there are still a few. They are called, they say, called by their dreams to come to sleep beneath the towers on the boundary between land and sea, between desperation and revelation. Many of them come from one of the broken lands or lost cities, refugee pilgrims with coins and trinkets hoarded in the hems of robes and scarfs. Some come from Ysk or the Eastern Enclaves, and arrive with litters and servants, and pay for the best sites to sleep with un-shaped emeralds and lumps of raw silver. These are the ones who can afford the highest floors on the buildings closest to the towers. The iron gates on every building are locked before sunset and unlocked after daybreak. Those who cannot afford to pay for a house to sleep in find a patch of road, or an alley on the edge of town, and huddle together and wait for sleep and revelation. Natia’s house is within the shadow of the tower that rises from the hill. It would have cost a lot for the person who died there last night to sleep there.
Why the sleepers comes a question that Natia gives the shortest of answers to.
‘Because they are fools,’ she says, and shakes her head that there might be anything worth saying beyond this. Ask the same question to one of the seekers, and you will get an answer filled with vague notions of transcendence, vision, and ecstasy. If what they say reflects anything, it is perhaps the ideas of hope and imagination which are as old as existence. Ask the same question of one of the few with enough conviction and coin to spend a second or third night in the town, and the answer is simpler.
‘You see what really is, and then you know.’
Natia, like all threes of those who live in the villages, is clear that whatever there is to know from the dreaming in the ruins of the past, it is not worth it. That does not stop her, or any of them, taking payment from seekers.
I help her take the dead sleeper to the harbour. We are not alone. There are a dozen other shroud-wrapped bundles on the quay. Close to the shore, I must be careful not to look up. The towers are close, and they look down at me from the sky.
What is in the towers now? It’s a question that no one will answer. People pretend not to hear when first asked, and if pressed, they simply say to stop asking. It’s not that They don’t want to say – because in fact they don’t know. It’s that they don’t want to think about it. No one has been able to get closer than a few paces to any of the towers since the night that the ground shook and one of them fell. Not without falling to the ground, asleep and unable to wake. Those that have tried remain there, until the wind and sun crumple their bones to dust.
I leave the town before the sun has settled to the edge of the sky. Two sleepers have taken the place of the corpse in the shell of Natia’s family house. They are wide-eyed, excited, fingers vibrating as they lay out their blankets on the floor. Perhaps they are answering a call, not from the towers, but from within, the need to touch an idea that has been lost to these lands for a long time, a sense that there is an answer. For those of us who do not want answers, the call is silent. Perhaps.
I look back once before night falls, a quick glance over my shoulder towards where the towers have become black fingers, reaching into the fire orange of sunset. There are lights at the tower tops, small glimmering lights, like those cast through narrow windows by candles. I find myself stopping, staring, before Natia pulls my arm and I blink and turn away. For a second, I feel an urge to lie down, to close my eyes, to rise into the sky above as I rest. But when the feeling passes, all that remains is the fading image of lights gleaming atop towers at sunset, and the idea of eyes opening, as a dreamer wakes from sleep.
Yours in service,
Edited by Greg Smith