Letters from an Unknown Land is 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.
In this, first story a traveller called Kalik sends his patron an account of what he finds on a devastated coastline.
The North Coast, Tenth Day after Midsummer
‘I don’t like ’em but their ways bring in a catch. What can you say to that?’ Horek does not meet my eyes while he talks. He is old, his skin tanned and fissured by the sea which he watches while he talks to me. Its surface sits under a layer of cloud, flat and grey. Down by the shore Horek’s boat sits high on the sands, its painted feathers flaking, the eyes on its prow veined with cracks. Wooden carcasses of other boats lie next to it, their planks slowly turning to rot. Horek’s fingers go to the copper feather at his neck, and he spits towards the water.
A row of black-hulled boats sit further along the sand. Each of them is the same shade of pitch, and their ropes are sun-bleached hemp. A fish is pinned to the prow of one craft. The flesh is still clinging to the bones, untouched by carrion. Horek does not look at the black boats as he works.
‘Times change, so do gods, perhaps.’
Horek is not the last of his kind, but he could be excused for thinking so. Passing down this coast ten summers ago the beaches were bright with the hulls of painted boats. Every village glittered with ropes of copper feathers and shards of sea glass hanging beside drying fish. The first boat that went to sea each morning poured a bowl of blood and fresh water into the sea. Now most of the villages are half-deserted, and the colours of the old ways are disappearing along with the painted boats. To Horek there is one reason for this change.
‘We sinned, and our sins were bad enough that we killed the gods of the waters.’ He does not look at me as he says this, nor at the sea breaking sluggishly on the sand nearby. ‘And when they are dead the gods can’t send their children to our nets.’ He pauses and shrugs. ‘It’s not good to eat what the sea gives now,’ says Horek as he folds his nets into the hull of his boat. Salt and the stains of fish blood mottle the patchwork of his clothes. They are still the many colours of the coast’s old ways, but they seem as wrung out as the sea itself. ‘The fish don’t come up silver anymore, when they come up at all,’ and he flicks his head at something lying on the edge of the wet sand, beside a heap of black weed. It’s something dead, but I would not have called it a fish. It is too transparent, and the shape of it is longer, like a lizard, and it looks as though it had a neck, and perhaps more than two eyes.
Out across the water, where there should be a boundary between sea and sky, mist lurks in a band, fusing the grey of one to the other. The sun breaks through rarely, and when it does its appearance is fleeting. This is the way it has been for five summers now.
The sin that killed the old gods is not a mystery: it was the sin of tolerance.
‘We should never have let them stay,’ Horek says and spits again. The ‘they’ were the dwellers of an island just off the coast, an island that seems to no longer be there. Neither Horek, nor anyone who would speak to me, had ever been on the island, but they did say that they saw the lights in the sky whenever it was a moonless night, and many of them had been close enough to see the spires and towers which covered the island’s back. ‘Meddlers, and ungodly,’ are words that cling to all talk of the island’s inhabitants, but if it hides anything it hides the ignorance of who the islanders were. The moment of their punishment though, is clear and sharp in the memories of all.
‘The ground shook, and the water pulled down the shore so far that you could see fish dying on the seabed,’ says Horek. ‘There was a white pillar reaching up to the sun, bigger than anything I have seen. It just went on and up and up… Then the gods screamed. The sea came back just after that, but it was black with their blood, and it swept half the villages away. Then the pillar spread out, and covered the sea and sky. Never been clear since. Those of us with boats went out a few days later. Sea was flat, and covered with dead fish.’ He goes silent for a while after that, and won’t say anything more when I ask.
In the villages along the coast there are few who disagree with Horek’s claim that their gods have abandoned them, but many have found new patrons to replace the gods they believe died that day.
The new god of the sea and shore prefers not to be named, at least so it seems from the reluctance of his followers to talk about the nature of their deity. Most, in fact, are reluctant to talk about anything at all. Clad in black cloth, made stiff by salt, they look at me out of the corner of their eyes when I walk past. When they move they clatter. All of them wear strings of bones around their arms, and necks. Most of the bones look like they are from fish, or the stones from cuttlefish, but not all of them, some of them are finger bones. I notice that some of these black clad fishermen are short one or more digits. Questions about this, just as with everything else, go answered with silence.
‘It’s a mark of those who refused to join ’em’, says Horek, and holds up his own hand up once he has finished with his nets. ‘One finger for every year since they came to save us. They let the sea strip the flesh. They get to wear them after.’
‘So you will have to give four if you go to them?’ I ask.
‘They never take a hand,’ he says after a pause. ‘Leave it as long as me, and you have to give something more. Water’s hungry, they say.’
Along with those who wear black and bones, there are the priests. I have seen one of them, but only at a distance. Tall, with the black robes, she wore the skull of a fish as headdress and mask. Pearls hung in the holes where the creature’s eyes had been, and her own eyes glittered black in a pale face.
No matter where the new devotees found their god, its blessings cannot be doubted. The black boats never come back from the sea without a full catch, and the fish that fill their nets are whole and fresh. I can’t help but think that this bounty from a blighted sea is what draws many to the new god rather than the chance to wear their finger bones around their necks. Their numbers are growing steadily. They don’t force others to join them. They don’t need to, hunger and desperation does that work for them. For Horek, and the few like him, the uncertainties of the old ways still have more weight than the promises of the new. How long though, can he and those like him resist the call of a full catch and a full stomach? As I leave the coast, I can’t help thinking that if I come that way again, I will find only black boats on the shoreline, and the rattle of finger bones as greeting.
Yours in service,