See the introduction for more information.
This story © Keenan Cross, 2022
[badlands, 8afm, 25yo]
The court of Tuo Mait, First of His Line, was boisterous, especially when the winds outside drove everyone indoors. There musicians, fights—scheduled ones between servants, and spontaneous ones between citizens—and always a crowd waiting to petition the lord. Tuo Mait himself was, as always, seated quietly in his throne, flanked by his silent guards and servants. He wore his perennial mild smile, and his fingers knit together almost compulsively.
When Dandec approached, he tucked his chin to his chest, so that his eyes could not try to meet the lord’s. On a quieter day, he would have heard the snickering around him.
“My friend Dandec has a request,” Tuo Mait declared. His voice was soft and honeyed.
The demihuman presented his leather envelope to the throne. Tuo Mait himself rose to take it.
“This is another text on the plants?”
Tuo Mait handed the envelope to an attendant. He leaned down so that Dandec’s eyes could not escape his face.
“Come, my friend Dandec. I’ve told you time and again that you can address me.”
One of Dandec’s eyes focused on the lord’s face briefly. Weather-beaten and lightly scarred, but above all, boyish. Dandec debated whether to accept the bait, and did so only by relaxing his posture a little. The lord patted him hard on the shoulder, which was still tender from a molt.
“I’ll see to it that your text reaches the printers,” he smiled. As soon as he turned away, Dandec moved out of the line of supplicants.
The winds outside were still high enough to cause a sandpaper roar against the walls of the stronghold. A dozen or more of Tuo Mait’s subjects huddled in the court’s antechamber, more in the stronghold’s vestibule. Bundled in oiled canvas and leather, heavy boots and thick goggles for some. Dandec pushed past them to brave the storm.
Outside, the powerful wind darkened midday with clouds of red-gray dust that billowed up from the earth like an endless flock of starlings taking flight. These storms scoured the walls of every building nearly every other day, turning every badlands settlement into a dreary hamlet of stripped, gray teeth poking up from the ground. The fortress was no exception: The large, ancient building, though imposing, was little more than an eroded gray ziggurat at the center of the settlement, with few surviving features aside from its ribbing of buttresses. In its centuries, it had been used for many purposes: storehouse, communal bunker, prison. Tuo Mait had inherited it as a stronghold from the predecessor he’d driven out soon after Dandec’s arrival.
Before entering the badlands, Dandec had acquired a form-fitting suit of rubbery wind armor, but he kept it covered with a shabby cloak ever since he had discovered that any badland lord’s strongarms could confiscate anything valuable they saw in a subject’s possession. With it and the helmet he had commissioned, which replaced goggles with a pair of large glass domes to allow for his eyes, he did not fear a storm like this, which was comparatively mild.
Most windstorms reached the badlands coming from the north, and so all buildings opened to the south. This one swirled around and attacked from the east, and so Dandec felt its blast as soon as he was outside of the stronghold. He squinted behind his lenses and trudged against the wind in the direction of his hut, feet digging into the forever disturbed dirt.
Beyond the stronghold’s walls he looked stopped to look north. Nothing was visible now, but on the clearest of days the distant peaks were just barely visible to the due north and north-northwest, the lowest foothills of the parallel mountain ranges that formed the Tornado Corridor. Those mountains ran parallel to eachother for several hundred miles, and they whipped the northern current into a screeching storm of tornadoes running south their entire length. This storm was the last breath of one of those, raging at a fraction of its force far from the exit to its furious birthplace.
That meant that this was the same wind that blew in Alu Hechak. Dandec imagined he could smell the scents of his home carried on these winds, when he stole a breath from behind the damp rag wrapped around his nose. The smell of salt air and commerce and machine grease.
He was not far from the ocean here, either. The opposite shore was only several days’ walk east. But here the ocean was acid, its depths dead and barren. Dandec never wanted to see that. The thought of a dead ocean filled him with a thin, taut horror, like a distantly remembered night terror. And he was fortunate that no business ever could send him to it: clouds of acidic fumes drifted from its surface several miles inland.
His home was only a small hut, as old and worn as the fortress. The frequent windstorms had worn holes into its walls that whistled like atonal flutes. Tuo Mait had given it to him. After ejecting its owners, a crowfolk family who now sheltered in a poorly appointed communal home and eyed the demihuman with weary resentment when he saw them. Dandec knew it would have been much worse than that for both, if he had argued against the gift.
Like many places he had lived, his home had become the stage for a tight clutter of papers, samples, and planters. The walls were necessarily thick, and so the interior space was greatly reduced. Dandec did not like to spend time there, but with the frequent wind storms and the likelihood of attack too far from the fortress, he could not put his days to walking the countryside in study and contemplation as he would have preferred.
He had collected clippings and seeds from the thin grasses and stunted trees of the badland countryside, and was attempting to cultivate them for study. Conditions were not good, with only a few windows he could open when the wind was low, and water a resource Tuo Main kept under his tight control. Dandec would have expected that to hamper his efforts, but it proved not to be much more deleterious indoors than out. His grasses grew as thick and his shrubs as tall—neither very much so.
Initially he had been delighted to find far greater diversity than other botanical philosophers had proposed the badlands would house. Upon observation, and comparing with his own notes and the few books of prints he had brought with him, he was sobered. It was not a wholly unique and subtly rich environment that he had uncovered; very little was endemic at all. Nearly all he found and documented was flora from neighboring regions, and an unremarkable mixture at that. The hardiest plants whose seeds could reach this territory, stunted and sickly.
Nonetheless, he wrote on everything he observed. It was Dandec’s (bitter) good fortune that his studies amused Tuo Mait enough that the windlord allowed him whatever paper he needed. In his cramped and cluttered home he observed, and he wrote, and he reobserved.
He had colleagues from Has Asel to the Moth Cup with whom he had corresponded on his intent to study the badlands, and he updated them often. Particularly Karst Loess, in Goldenhill, who had been most intrigued and supportive. He was especially disappointed with how little of interest he could report to the old moth. Communication to and from the badlands was inevitably delayed enough, let alone when he had nothing interesting enough to send to warrant declaring the manuscript urgent.
There was no magelight in the badlands, or at least no network of lightmages dedicated to maintaining it. Therefore in the dark of the storm, Dandec worked by the light of a tinderbox. He curled himself up before his writing desk, which was made very small by a tray in which he had planted several types of grass. With the wind roaring ever louder, he penned another letter to an arborist with whom he had worked in Has Asel, describing his findings about the trees here and inviting opinions. Another to an independent scholar in the Great Common Plains with whom he had been put in touch by the last, but whom he had never met.
He wrote a number of letters, which he would send along with the next manuscript he prepared. It seemed to go deep into the night, though he knew it was only the darkness of the storm. Wind screeched and tore at his house while he wrote, a cacophony that filled his head so fully that he felt it running across the inside of his skull, scraping and kicking as it went. He didn’t even think it an unpleasant sound—but it was so loud.
When he had written what would come, he investigated his planters again, looked over his grasses and saplings and flowers, though he had done so just before bringing the package to Tuo Mait. Eventually he snuffed his lamp, though it was most likely still the late afternoon, and did his best to sleep.
He dreamt of walking, as he always did. There were great distances between everything in his dreams. Then he was woken by a screeching, roaring silence.
The windstorm was past. Accustomed as he had become to the deafening sound of it, its absence felt as though a wedge had been scooped out of his head, leaving a harsh and sour sting behind his eyes. Dandec waited for sleep to return, but he was too aware of it, and he had to sit up in the dark.
And it was dark now, deep into the night. When he unboarded his windows Dandec saw a clear sky, starry and only strung with light streamers of cloud. The land was faintly illuminated by bluish the light of the wet moon from the north.
Dandec did not let himself question the urge to leave his house. Taking his cloak in case of another storm, however unlikely that looked, he crept out under the moonlight.
It was cool and still outside. The moonlight revealed a landscape of rolling hills that appeared flat in the sun, like the sea frozen in a calm moment. The dry moon was in the southwest, bolstering the illusion with its diamond light. There was a lone stand of trees a short walk from Tuo Mait’s fortress. Dandec made for that.
It was not much harder to navigate in the dark than in the sun, accustomed as he was to being unable to trust his eyes to show him his path. He found the trees a few hundred paces from the fortress—since settling in the badlands he had ceased to use or even think in the standard lengths of his homeland. A collection of oak and birch, with firm, resistant trunks that were home to numerous parasitic vines that were ripped away with each storm
The draw of flora was strong here, where there was comparatively so little. Dandec stood amidst the scrubby ground cover and let his eyes choose what to show him: the silhouette of the canopy against the moonlight, the slightly reflective stalks of surviving vines on the trees, his feet amongst the litter of downed branches. He breathed in the arid but musty post-storm air and he wondered.
Firstly he wondered what he had not examined. Perhaps if there was nothing to be learned about the varieties of plant life, there was something in their distribution? Would it be possible to plot the locations of different species across the region? Could he request that samples be sent to him from outside, to compare directly?
Secondly he wondered at the use of any of this. Was there anything of note to be learned about the plant life of the badlands? Did the wider community of botanical philosophers gain anything from it, if there was? Only the commonsense principle that hardy things weathered difficult circumstances, and that not many things were hardy.
He thought also about Chidurin, should she reach her supposed destination. He could scarcely picture her here. She had envisioned a lawless place of survivalist loners, who kept to themselves and fought for their needs. That was not the badlands Dandec had found, not at all. What Chidurin expected was a place untouched by civilization, but it was, in fact, quite civilized. In the most basic—and maybe worst—ways. The windlords ruled at no one’s behest, took whatever their subjects could give, moved fighting bands about to take from each other. They were hateful little men who were constantly replaced by newer and wilier little men, like a wound bubbling with infection. And there was no escaping them. There was always another arising and seizing land, and there were always fighters patrolling it. There could be no great unification, because the windlords had no interest in everything; they had what they wanted. And no revolution, no new way of life, because the wind destroyed everything that stood above the windlords.
Chidurin imagined a place where everyone lived like demihumans, unique and alone. Here, everyone was bound together, not with chains but struck through with an iron rod. She would have the same life here as in the Plains.
The cool, still air in his face made Dandec linger. Once he returned, after all, he would only light his lamp and begin to look at his useless notes again. Maybe write another pointless letter. He could spend a little longer with the trees and their fallen branches.
He thought so, until he heard footsteps in the woods. Soft, but unmistakable. His every thought erased at once, Dandec ran opposite the sound.
How stupid to be out at night. Dandec may have the current lord’s protection, but that did not shield him from an attack in the dark.
He hit trees, stumbled over branches. A hand might have grabbed at his arm, at the same time that he heard a derisive laugh, very close. His eyes were on the canopy, he could see nothing. But this told him that there was more than one.
He thought he heard someone, farther behind, saying: “It’s Tuo Mait’s pet.”
Someone else may have called after him: “You know he doesn’t send your letters!”
In his home, he barred the door and windows. It was a long while before he shook free of the conviction that the strangers surrounded the house in wait. When he was sure, he did not return to his useless notes, but lay on his bed in darkness in the dark.
The word of an unseen stranger at night was hardly proof, but Dandec already had no doubt that Tuo Mait did not send his letters. It explained his correspondents’ silence, for one. All mail passed through the windlord’s hands, and only a fool thought such a man intended to pass it along in earnest. A fool who would leave his many sheltered homes to live in the badlands. A fool who would go out at night there.
In some measures it was not a complete waste. Dandec rarely enclosed his original notes in his letters. Nor did he discard the first drafts of his manuscripts. Those were all here, in his cramped house, and not ashes in the stronghold’s furnace. Little good that did, though, because he could hardly take them all with him when he left.
And he knew, very suddenly, that he intended to leave. He lay through the night, until there was sun in the margins of his window and door, considering the possibility of a surreptitious escape. How little he could bring, how best to leave the entire region. Would Tuo Mait order him returned? Or would the windlord merely smile viciously at the squirming of his ridiculous demihuman pet, and forget him?
In this time he remembered an old dream, of high trees and the winds of his home.