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There were essentially three kinds of people in Farn: shepherds, dyers and weavers. A few were involved in village administration, and others spent their time transporting goods to and from the distant city, but every family was rooted in the village's collective business of producing the colourful cloth which made their region famous.
Tahm's mother was a dyer, which meant he had spent much of his childhood learning the plants and insects that produced the best pigments. He was glad he was a dyer. Shepherding seemed a hard, tedious life, and weaver children were expected to stay close to home.
Green and yellow pigments were the most common. Haper leaf was the green of choice because it provided the widest range of light-fast shades. Amrind pods yielded the richest gold and, when combined with river clay as mordant, a bright sunset orange. For good reds and violets, Tahm and his relatives had to travel to the foothills of the Sturm Mountains to gather lichens. These also provided dusky greens and clear greys, but mineral mordants would reveal scarlet, vermillion, rose and purple.
Blue was rarest of colours, and the woven cloth of Farn was famed for its secret blue.
On the plains around Farn grew an unusual herb, lura. The plant yielded a pale azure dye. It was a favourite forage of the sheep, and thus arose the mystery. The shepherds of Farn fed several of their flocks exclusively on lura. It turned the white fleeces silver, and the black fleeces purest black.
Stranger still, the pigment went through a complex transformation in the gut of the lural sheep. A deep blue dye could be extracted from their shit, however even more valuable were the iridescent dung beetles which lay their eggs in the shit. Soon the larvae emerged.
These small greenish-blue grubs of the ilulura beetle were the source of the most famous dyes of Farn. We dyers learned as children the best time in the moon cycle to pick the bugs out of lural sheep shit. Then we mashed them up and fermented the liquor for a week. By itself it gave greenish-blue. River clay mordant reddened the dye to a rich purple, and iron gave a deep midnight blue, but copper was best for a clear, deep blue. Any of these colours applied to silver fleece of the lural sheep produced mesmerizing iridescent hues.
These colours were the most carefully-guarded secret of the Farn cloth. We heard stories about terrible things happening to children who revealed the dyer ways. In the Sturm Mountains lived a demon who liked to dye its clothes with blood of humans. At night it would snatch those who disregarded the mysteries of their craft, or so we heard.
"Who told you that story?" my mother would laugh. "How silly! Just don't go telling anybody our methods. It's our livelihood."
Even the shepherds and weavers did not know all our secrets. And in this writing, I've omitted important details.
Our village of Farn lay isolated on a rocky plain virtually incapable of producing any crops. The land was uneven, sloping gradually upward to the northern foothills and the Sturm Mountains beyond. It produced great diversity of herbs and small trees, as well as abundant game, with which we would occasionally enrich our steady diet of mutton and sheep's cheese.
But a dyers' hunting party was more interested in noticing plants or lichens from which we might extract new pigments to complement the iridescent ilulura.
My mother used to say, "Tradition and innovation are the principles of any good craftsperson."
Our village straggled along the verge of a shallow stream, tributary to the river which drained the entire plain. All watercourses originated in the Sturm Mountains, a steady mass on the horizon. The river mud, with its unusual properties so useful to our work, came from those mountains.
My family often ventured into the foothills in search of lichens and other materials for our craft. One day I saw a high cascade in the distance, where the river fell from a high plateau.
I asked my mother if we could explore it.
"We do not approach the mountain," she said.
"I thought you didn't believe in the demon," I said. I was old enough now to speak to my mother this way.
"What demon?" she replied with vehemence. "There is already enough evil in the world without need to invoke demons! People live in the mountains but we do not deal with them."
Then she turned quiet again.
"We do not go there and they do not come into the plains. This is how we have kept peace with them for many years."
No one from outside ever came to Farn. Only our weavers travelled and traded to the city.
In Farn, people usually married within clans. Marrying outside your clan wasn't frowned upon, just considered unusual. When it happened, the couple usually lived within the wife's tradition.
My mother's brother, Uncle Kahn, had married a weaver, but since he had not been raised and taught in the weaving ways, he naturally became a trader to the city. He often returned with fascinating tales about the palaces and gardens, people who lived only for food and music and pleasure.
I could have finagled a journey with him to the city.
But I was more interested in the mysterious mountain people.
Spring was our busiest season. When shearing time came, the whole village prepared to send the bulk of our famous cloth for sale. When fresh fleeces became available, my family would work from sunrise to sunset dyeing and spinning. We didn't have much time to experiment, but followed trusted practices and traditions to produce the most popular colours.
Dyers had another busy season in midsummer when ilulura grubs began growing in the shit. We collected them, prepared the secret pigments, and dyed yarn. Some of the dye and some of the iridescent yarn would be saved for the following spring.
Between the initial rush of spring production and ilulura grub harvest came a few weeks with fewer demands upon the dyer clan. Then, as herbs and trees sprouted, we explored the landscape and experimented with different dyestuffs. We sought novel colours to enliven the weavers' patterns.
At this time young lovers would also wander into the bush to camp and spend time alone. The elders of Farn encouraged this. Youth were expected to explore their desires before considering marriage.
I had begun to feel the spring rush of lust, but my eyes had settled on none of the village girls.
We got along alright in Farn. Everyone had their jobs to do, and we had ours. Mother's dyeing was highly regarded. She consistently produced the clearest colours, and could achieve precise, subtle variations to splendid effect. Her ilulura dyes were the highest quality. The best weavers often requested her assistance when they received special orders from wealthy customers in the city.
I cannot say we were well liked. Though dyeing was an essential part of our village's culture and craft, the shepherds and weavers mistrusted its secrecy. Other dyers were jealous of my mother's proficiency. She was considered a witch.
As if to accentuate Mother's eccentricity, she had no husband. I didn't have a father. Not only that, I did not have a father's family. It was as if he had never existed, and my mother did not speak about it, the same as she did not speak about the demon in the mountains the way other children's parents did. There were many things she would not discuss. Our craft utterly consumed her attention, as if it was the only thing worth consideration. To talk about anything else, she would have to admit how different we were from other people.
In early summer when our work eased off, when other young people (particularly dyer children) rambled into the surrounding wilderness in pairs, once I was old enough, I began leaving Farn alone. Initially I did not go far from the village, in fact I might set up camp on a low hill from which I could see the reassuring rise of smoke in the distance.
The year after my family's venture into the foothills, when Mother had issued her stern warning about the mountains, I felt drawn in that direction. I told her I would be gone for two weeks.
During our previous exploration of the foothills I had noticed some unfamiliar red lichen growing on rocks. We had brought home a sample. It produced some promising violet pigment, but we did not have enough quantity to test it with the full range of mordants at our disposal. So I told my mother I was returning to search for more, which was true.
It was a four day hike from Farn to the cascade. A rutted road struck across country from Farn to the ford of River Mahan. From there a footpath followed the course upstream into the grey foothills.
The evening I arrived within sight of the waterfall was dense and warm. I had been scrambling uphill for two days, following the river through a rocky canyon. At last I reached a plateau grazed clear and green by wild goats. The cascade descended from a high opening in the mountains ahead of me, an inspirited issue, like a poem from the heavens expressing some arcane secret. The sheer volume of water indicated it must come from a large body of land. I envisioned another vast plateau, higher than the one I had recently attained, guarded by the dark pallisade.
Already exhausted from my ascent through the foothills, I lost enthusiasm. The climb so far seemed paltry compared to the cliffs rising above me. I set up camp and sat contemplating the journey ahead. I normally had a great appetite for the unknown, especially things swathed in mystery as this one. Why did my courage fail me now?
That night I lay awake listening to the incessant thunder of water over nearby cataracts. This too was unfamiliar. When the stream through our village rose each spring, it gurgled and swished. The rest of the year it died to a trickle.
A river describes the ebb and flow of life. The stream through Farn shows little enthusiasm, but even it has its moments. Lying in the dark far from home, listening to energized water rush through the canyon below, I had a choice.
I fell asleep for a few hours. When dawn light woke me, I felt renewed desire to attack the cliff. After a quick meal of smoked mutton, I turned my face to the ethereal cascade. The valley was full of mist, so I could barely see my path. I began to walk. Strange energy coursed beneath my feet.
The river cut between two high, rocky spurs of the cliff. The grassy verge where goats had grazed grew narrower and narrower. Approaching the cascade, I noticed a bare path following the edge of the gorge. Whether this had been trodden by people or animals, I could not tell.
The feathery cascade emanated a fine mist to blend with morning fog. The air grew cooler the further I penetrated the valley. At last I stood close to the shushing falls. The footpath did not peter out, but ran purposefully right to the place where plunging foam disappeared into the canyon.
Behind the curtain of water ran a rock shelf and shadows passing into darkness. The ledge probably led to a passage. I reached and found a handhold behind the cascade, then placed one foot gingerly on the shelf. The rock lurched under my weight. I glimpsed the deep chasm with water falling out of sight. It made my head spin. I held still, trying to keep my balance, but my footing still felt unsteady. The water was icy cold. I couldn't just stand there. Half thrusting with my hind leg, scrambling with my hands, I sprawled into the unknown space.
I landed on an even rock floor, but the sensation of movement did not end. The earth vibrated beneath me as if a much greater volume of water were pounding against the outside of this nook. Afraid of sliding into the gorge, I leapt up and pushed myself away from the edge. My temple hit the hard back wall of the space and I collapsed again in pain. Something was wrong with this place. I had to move. It would have made sense to go back, but the assault on my body and senses put me in a fighting mood.
The ledge gave way to a narrow opening in the rock, not a natural cave but a clean cut corridor wide enough for a person to walk through. It ascended, and daylight filtered down from above. I forced myself to my feet and charged into the tunnel, but the noise and chaos did not fall away behind as I imagined they would. Thunder filled my ears and the ground underfoot thrashed like a dying animal. A rectangle of grey sky appeared overhead, with a set of steps climbing toward it. I tottered upward, scrambling for handholds along the uneven wall.
The stairway emerged on a rocky mounstainside. A few trees had taken root here and there, deformed by the wind. A footpath angled up the slope and I set off to follow it on unsteady footing. The earth still trembled underfoot. A wind had disturbed the surrounding mists. Dark banners of cloud began streaming around the shoulders of the mountain. At length the path reached the edge of a deep crevasse between two peaks. The ground's movement had grown stronger, heaving and swaying. I had to get down on hands and knees to avoid falling into the jagged darkness below.
The streaming clouds brought rain so fierce I could hardly see my way forward, then a crack of lightning and deafening thunder. I crawled into the shelter of a large rock. It would protect me from the direct blast of wind and hopefully from lightning strikes. I huddled there for some time but the rain did not abate. I was completely drenched. The ground continued churning. With each heave, my stomach clenched until finally I vomited. I was exhausted and trembling with cold. I decided to try to return to the cave under the falls. Perhaps it would be drier.
Just as I edged from the shadow of the rock, the rain and wind eased. The lightning broke. The ground continued to roll and buckle, but I turned immediately. Determined to conquer this mountain, I crawled along the edge of the ravine. Twice more I had to vomit over the edge.
At last I reached a small lake on a high plateau, its water completely smooth. It surprised me so much I didnít notice at first the ground had stopped thrashing. I sat a few minutes relaxing my tense body and gazing into peaceful reflections of clouds and mountain peaks.
The clouds cleared quickly. So had the mists below. From where I sat with my back against a rock, I enjoyed a clear view over the canyon, the place where I had camped the night before, and foothills rolling away toward the land where I lived.
Had lived. In reaching the lake I had crossed some kind of threshold where the mountain stopped resisting. Now I felt the opposite, not a physical force propelling me forward, but a strong certainty I must proceed, once I had rested. Something had changed within me, and I guessed something deeper would happen next.
The arms of the sun surrounded me. Streamers of mist arose from the shining water and wet rock, but quickly vanished in the warming air. I too arose and walked carefully around the edge of the lake.
Beyond, in the lap of higher mountain peaks, lay another small but deep valley in the shape of a bowl. A circular garden filled the bottom, divided by eight radiating paths like spokes of a wheel. At the hub stood a low stone tower with a parapet around the roof and a short spire.
I jerked back in surprise. Someone stood watching me.
An arched door in the tower faced toward me. It stood open and a man had come to stand in the pathway pointing my direction. I could not see the expression on his face from such a distance, but he waited with feet squared and open hands held out a little from his sides. His hair was dark, and he wore a long, deep blue robe that caught sunlight like the most iridescent ilulural dyes I had ever seen. He appeared to be waiting for me. After my initial surprise upon first seeing him, I lost any sense of unease.
"Come down," said the man in the blue robe.
He spoke gently, but the words resonated clearly across the distance. It sounded like an invitation, but without any decision on my part, without any awareness of having traversed the hillside, a moment later I stood in front of him.
"You are Tahm," he said. "I am Gale."
"Why did you send the storm to drive me off the mountain?"
The words sounded plaintive and childish in my own ears.
"I did not cause the storm and earthquake," he replied. "it was your own resistance to the power of the mountain."
"Where did you get that cloak?" I said. "It is dyed according to the tradition of my people."
"I made it," Gale replied. "The people of Farn did not discover ilulural dye."
He turned and strode toward the open door of the tower. Without a word, I knew I should follow. We entered a high-arched chamber within the base of the building. Numerous windows of coloured glass admitted streams of light. A stone dais rose in the middle of the room. Gale stood there and turned to face me again.
"You have brought a question. Tell me your question."
I had held the question in my mind ever since I formed the decision to explore these mountains.
"Who is my father?" I said.
Gale's gazed softened.
"Your father is here," he said, and then. "Tahm of Farn, I am your father."
"Why did you leave my mother?"
"I did not leave her. I have lived here since I was a boy of your age. She was a lone explorer like you, who came here. I taught her much of what she knows about dyes. But she did not believe this mountain was a good place to raise a child."
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