Part Three – Deep Khumos Territory.
The further west we travelled, the less I saw anyone not of khumos blood. There were travelling merchants who sported signs of having journeyed to the south, but by the time I arrived at Granite Reach, I hadn't seen a non-khumos in weeks. The mountain trails are not like the well-trodden roads of the south, and travel even over short distances was difficult and slow, often dangerous, but always beautiful. There are no maps, but the locals of every little village had journeymen who could describe the local area in great detail. Instead of maps, they used stories to navigate by, and town by town, I found the same stories told by journeymen who had never met one another. These stories seemed ancestral, and guided the traveller by means of legends and histories of the various ruins, rock formations, caves, towns and temples.
I should say something about the temples. Beliefs in the north are not like it is in the south. For the mountain-folk, the earth is alive with old powers, and there seems little distinction between ordinary domestic life and superstitious ritual. The Brightsong, divine beneficence that it is across the lands of Telanya, is not an equal force everywhere, and in the mountains bordering on the northern wastelands, the creatures of the Gloom are not so shy as they are in the south. In the south, the Brightsong supplanted the worship of older powers. The Brightsong is the answered prayers of all who cried out for help against the Gloom in ancient times. Some southern folk traditions have maintained the names and ceremonies of some of the old ways, but mostly they are only known by historians.
In the North, all that history is still lying around, reminding everyone of the long time before the Gloom, and the long time since the beginning of the Bright age. The old ways live on in an active folk tradition, that, while not exactly religious in terms of having a unified doctrine, or a central holy text, or divine hero, are nonetheless the core of popular beliefs and daily routines for many khumos in the north.
I saw fishermen sing a fish prayer before casting their lines. First they would toss a tiny stone into the water, then make a small motion with their hands while singing a short song. Unfortunately I could not understand the words, their accents were so thick.
I saw house builders stop to give offerings at a tiny roadside shrine each morning before work. The shrine was dedicated to a goddess of the hearthstone, and the workers would burn incense and offer tiny gifts of food. The food, I noticed, was eaten either by animals, or taken by children who looked like they needed the food. The workers saw all this and did not show any sign that such behaviour was disrespectful. In fact, there was one village where the workers had built a tiny hut beside their shrine, where a local homeless boy took shelter from the rain.
I spoke with the boy at length, and his story is worth writing down.
Born on the very edge of the Brightsong, north of Mount Ruthane, this boy, whose only name was Gell, (a khumos word meaning found), said that he had been born without parents. His first memory was of being carried by dog. He grew up in the company of salt miners in a work-camp, and did not meet any non-khumos until he was seven, when a cornar explorer found the camp. He travelled around with the cornar for a few years, but something bad happened. Gell never said this cornar’s name, but only mentioned that if he ever saw him again, it would be on the day the Brightsong crumbled. When I met him, Gell was wandering east, following the teams of miners, builders and merchants who didn't mind him scrounging from their scraps.
With such a harsh life, one might expect the boy to look filthy, or malnourished, but he was neither. While untidy, he was not unclean. While slender, he was not hungry. Strange as it may seem, there was something about him that reminded me of a dog, in that way that a dog may seem content with almost nothing. Gell's eyes were bright and his hair shiny. He was too young to have grown a beard, but there was a wispy stubble upon his cheeks, and despite the rough life he lived, he did not complain. In fact, he seemed rather to consider the sedentary folk of the cities and towns to be but poor cousins, lashed to the post of their circumscribed lives.
It is fair to say that I have met, and known many khumos. It is fair to say, after decades of nomadic living, that I have known many nomads.
Gell, was unique.