Part Four – Approaching Granite Reach.
Strange noises in the night, these mountain canyons and desolate rock faces feel haunted. In the east, the ruins had seemed sunlit and somehow still living, but here. I didn't know what Old really was until I saw Granite Reach. There is a terrible emptiness in the approach to the Reach, days and days of lifeless rocky slopes. Not a tree, not a lizard, not a bird. Not even the stains of lichen colour the rocks. The landscape is not without its colours, but other than ourselves (the troupe and I), we saw nor heard any living thing for a week. I often sought the courage to ask my companions about this eerie landscape, but something always held my tongue. One of the players, a young khumos everyone called Chuff, sang a song every night, like a prayer to keep the silence away. I did not ask him what the words meant. I did not ask him why he sang it.
I thought that I might go mad, so terrible was the stillness of those snow-capped mountains. When I saw the walls of Granite Reach, still very distant a long way higher up the mountains, I cried out for joy, whooping and singing so loudly I caused a small avalanche that might have done us real harm had not one of the troupe silenced me before the whole mountain came down upon us.
There aren't many ashkasi in the south, I'm told it's the hot weather, but here at the Reach, the mountain slopes are dotted with villages populated by their kind alone. The popular image, the stereotype really, of an ashkasi, is of course a tall, blue skinned, thick muscled barbarian with not much clothing on. The reality is that as diverse as the colours of stone are in the world, so too are the skins of the ashkasi. The clothing however, is all true. Trolls don't feel the cold, they get around in the snow as if it were the sunniest of summer days and I will admit to feeling a little bit insulted by their quiet sniggering at my shivering. I spent every silver serpent I had on new winter clothes, ashkasi-made. It seems there is an industry in selling warm clothes to foreigners, and though I walked from the tailor's shop penniless, I was the warm and proud owner of an ashkasi-made double-thick fur coat and pants. It did not protect me from the laugher of children, but it did protect me from frostbite.
I had gotten used to the rather tacit culture of the khumos, but among the ashkasi, well, I have heard flocks of birds less chatty. Trolls look imposing, even threatening, especially to someone as small as myself, but their natures are anything but aggressive. I heard more laughter in Granite Reach than in any other mountain town, and their habit of making terrible puns and laughing at their own wit, though a little off-putting at first, displayed to me the generous and fun-loving nature of a people who live in one of the most inhospitable places in Telanya.
I don't know how I did it, but within an hour of being inside the walls of the Granite Reach city itself, I was lost. I mean, really lost. I had no idea where the troupe were, and the winding stairwells leading to pathways leading to crossroads leading to tunnels made me dizzy and disoriented. I asked around for directions to the theatre and was told to go to the Auditorium. Asking at every street 'corner' (there were no real corners, just curves with side streets and stairs...frustrating), it still took me two hours to find the city centre, and I pushed my way through crowds of noisy citizens to find myself amongst the audience of two philosophers debating a rather unusual subject.
A circle is always empty, the first philosopher asserted.
No, a circle is always full, the second retorted.
What if there is nothing inside the circle? asked the first.
Then it is full of emptiness, replied the second.
What happens if I break the circle? Is it full, or empty then? a third philosopher interjected from the crowd.
I was prevented from discovering the answer to this question by one of my troupe companions slapping me on the back and dragging me away through the crowd to where the others were unsaddling the ponies and stowing the gear into a nearby tavern. The owner had expected our arrival and had beds, stables, and a stage already prepared. For the next ten days we worked and played in this vast city of stone, the oldest citadel in the mountains.